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Program note: Mark Grandison's "Violin concerto on D"

  • program note by the composer

Concertos traditionally involve a discourse and clearly delineated exchange of ideas between soloist and orchestra. A linear approach is used in which both parties share the same thematic material and unfold the musical narrative either concurrently or with solo-tutti alternation. This work experiments with alternative thematic trajectories between soloist and orchestra in its three continuous movements.

The opening movement, Parallel Paths, presents two polarized forces operating on separate planes, each obstinately persisting with and independently developing their exclusive themes. The violinist initially feels out its 7-pitch theme in an improvisatory and virtuosic manner, much as an Indian sitar player will explore the contours and possibilities of a raga. As if trying to draw the violin into its orbit, the orchestra mechanically reiterates its 6-pitch theme, rarely making concession in volume or textural density. Despite being occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra, the soloist tenaciously fends for itself. Their relationship is analogous to two eccentric and effusive rivals running side-by-side, one light and nimble, the other a behemoth. They follow the same course, but rather than share a dialogue, they conduct two simultaneous monologues.

The slow central movement, Arc of Shadows, provides respite from the incessant tussle of Movement I, emerging from the violin’s solitary, lingering high D. The relationship between the two protagonists alters, as they now share a new theme simultaneously. Commencing in unison, the trajectory becomes one of divergence and eventual convergence to unison again. The violin’s melodic line is initially coloured by a succession of instruments that ‘shadow’ it. A sequence of languorous woodwind lines follow, ornamented by violin arabesques. A broad arc unfolds in which the soloist subtly detaches itself from the orchestra and ascends unaccompanied to its highest register. The apex is reached at the central point of the work – a moment of stillness in which the disembodied violin presents a hushed, understated cadenza. As the violin gradually descends, it merges once more with the orchestra. The soloist sweeps the orchestra along with it in one final climactic ascent and descent, before recalling opening material and coming to rest over a residual low D in cellos and basses.

The brisk and capricious final movement, Pursuit, provides a structural symmetry to the work by reprising the themes from Movement I, but now combined and shared imitatively between orchestra and soloist. The pursuit commences with the violin launching unannounced into an unceasing cascade of runs and turns. The orchestra gives chase with various instruments ‘playing tag’ in pursuing the indefatigable soloist. What ensues is a game of cat-and-mouse. The elastic and ever-elusive violin always manages to stay one step ahead of the orchestra, shaking it off with sudden shifts in register or figuration, hovering above tauntingly, darting in and out of the fray, or sidestepping to allow the orchestra to swoop by unwittingly. The mood becomes increasingly buoyant and playful, and by the final section the two forces have united, accelerating cheek by jowl to a peroration that recalls the opening bars.

Many violin concertos have been written in D, an appellation referring to the home key that opens the work and serves as a base from which various excursions are made into other keys. This, however, is a Violin Concerto on D, in as much as its tonal centre remains fixed on D virtually throughout. What changes between each section is the particular scale, or mode, always based on D. The first movement commences with the optimistic and bright Lydian mode. It cycles through increasingly darker modes until it reaches the sombre Phrygian mode of the second movement. In the third movement the modes reverse the order of Movement I, winding their way back to the Lydian mode. This provides a tonal symmetry to the work - a musical equivalent of descending through increasingly shadowy terrain into a dark valley, and then ascending back to the sunny summits.


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