7 Steps to Creating a New Violin Concerto
By Anne Akiko Meyers
At the end of 2012, I performed the world premiere of Mason Bates’ Violin Concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony and Leonard Slatkin. The idea for the concerto, Bates’ first, dated back to 2006.
Titled “Archaeopteryx,” it is about a hybrid flying dinosaur that makes an inspirational journey toward flight. Much like climbing the Old Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (which I’ve done!), the process of bringing a new violin concerto to life feels like running an overly long marathon. And yet, when a work comes together onstage, the rewards are vast.
Performances of Bates’ music have brought audiences to their feet, yelling “Brava!” in Chicago, Detroit, Lyon, Nashville, Pittsburgh, and Richmond, Virginia. Upcoming performances will include the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, from April 14–16, and a four-city tour of New Zealand.
Composers have always fascinated me. From Rautavaara, Bernstein, and Barber to Bach, Vivaldi, and Beethoven, they throw their ideas on paper and inspire us with their stories, rhythms, and moods.
The language is pure and powerful, shaping and molding notes to sing and hopefully say something deep and meaningful that can make listeners dream and enter an almost trance-like state.
I have always wondered what life as a violinist would be like if Chopin, Mahler, or Rachmaninoff wrote a violin concerto. Perhaps time or financial constraints deter some great music from ever entering the world. Is it a matter of pestering composers enough to write something?
There are several composers I greatly admire who run the other way when they see me for fear of hearing me beg and plead again about commissioning them. Composers beware! I don’t give up easily.
And that includes staunch dedication to developing a work after it’s written. Recently, I collaborated with legendary composer, Arvo Pärt. After endlessly working to play the opening cadenza of Fratres as marked, physically exhausted and practically getting tendonitis to bring it to life, he turned to me and said, “Anne Akiko . . . why do you play it so fast? It is not necessary.”
I nearly lost it! He wrote the tempo marking!
But what a valuable lesson it was. Composers are forever learning and changing their views on their music just as we performers are trying to stay flexible with our interpretative skills and find the soul of the music we play. There is nothing as rewarding as working with the creators of the music directly.
But back to the music at hand. This is the story of the creation of the Bates Violin Concerto.
7 Steps to Creating a new Violin Concerto:
- Find one brilliant composer.
- Convince him or her to write a new work.
- Add a legendary music director to champion the project.
- Find a world-class orchestra to co-commission and premiere the work.
- Shake the soloist repeatedly.
- Add enthusiastic audiences.
- Serve immediately. Repeat.
- Convince record label to record the music to help expose as many people as possible to the new work.
I asked Bates, a young, super-talented composer to update the cadenzas for the Beethoven Violin Concerto. He immediately created a new and fresh sound, and the cadenzas were wildly successful when I took them on tour in the Netherlands. We spoke about the possibility of a large-scale work for violin and orchestra in the future. I had previously worked with many composers on world premieres and was excited at the prospect of collaborating with Mason on this project.
Mason had a violin/laptop concerto proposal. Over the next year, the idea was refined into a four-movement, 20-minute concerto for violin and electronica. It was kind of like a techno-dance concerto, as he is also a deejay. I went to a bar in San Francisco and saw him at work, and we collaborated in a concert where there were “deejay interludes.” As he deejayed his own material, I was getting hungrier for this violin concerto we were discussing. What would it be like? Would there be more clues?
For an incredible moment, three generations of composers admired each others’ works.
We were ready to start the concerto and needed to secure a music director to perform and help promote the piece. Legendary maestro Leonard Slatkin, who has long championed living composers and new works, expressed his admiration for Mason’s music and supported the project. I had a long working history with Leonard, dating back to our first tour of Japan with the St. Louis Symphony in 1989. He had introduced me to Joseph Schwantner, which resulted in “Angelfire,” a fantasy for amplified violin and orchestra that I premiered at the Kennedy Center, where Slatkin was music director of the National Symphony at the time. I was overjoyed when he came on board for this exciting project.
Mason was named composer-in-residence for the Pittsburgh Symphony, which signed on to co-commission the premiere. Giancarlo Guerrero [music director of the Nashville Symphony] agreed to perform the Mason Bates Violin Concerto. There was one teeny tiny problem. There was no concerto yet.
Mason proposed a double-wind orchestra accompanying me for the violin concerto. We secured a date for the premiere. I was ready to crack open the champagne, but decided to leave it on ice, at least until after the first performance. On December 7 and 9, 2012, at Heinz Hall, with the Pittsburgh Symphony and Leonard Slatkin, we were going to premiere Mason’s first concerto. Rebecca Davis, a publicity master, signed on to create excitement and buzz. It was at once exciting and terrifying!
It sounded a bit like Godzilla in the depths of the ocean making its way to shore.
I was in Aspen, Colorado, when I received a rough draft of the first movement. Mason mentioned something about an archaeopteryx. “A what?” I asked. “A hybrid dinosaur who takes flight. Listen to the midi file and tell me what you think,” he said. After a first listen, I ran to my husband, jumping up and down with excitement, and told him it sounded amazing—but that I was going to die from the gnarly challenges it posed. Mason decided against using electronica, as he wanted the violin to soar and sing as much as possible, and incorporated a full orchestra, with Thai gongs and egg shakers to boot.
Mason has always said “the orchestra is the world’s largest synth [synthesizer].” Celli were instructed to slap their instruments at the start of the concerto, and it sounded a bit like Godzilla in the depths of the ocean making its way to shore.
With a looming deadline, I was concertizing and constantly on the road with my husband, two-year-old daughter, seven-month-old baby, and a lot of stress, wondering how I would ever learn this dinosaur concerto. The music is full throttle with non-stop rhythmic interplay with the orchestra, and time and key signature changes in practically every measure.
There were many revisions with bar numbers still being added and beats being altered and edited right up to the dress rehearsal for the world premiere. (Mason, finally hearing the work for the first time, wanted to make further changes right there onstage.)
I survived all the revisions and was thrilled the concerto went off without a hitch. The performances were a tremendous success and the audiences went wild with excitement.
It was a bit surreal to walk onstage, but once the orchestra, Slatkin, and I started sharing this colorful experience with its non-stop excitement, soaring melodies, and challenging rhythmic interplay, we all danced and swooned to the music. This new composition was officially born.
I was so relieved and grateful.
As is often the case, the concerto would be changed again and again and I would relearn it several more times. I couldn’t Xerox the edits fast enough and there was no way to memorize the concerto because of it.
We Skyped our working sessions and I appreciated how Mason wanted to understand all the technical aspects of the violin and make sure it was heard at all times. The music is exciting, propulsive, cinematic, and beautiful.
Mason and I spoke about making a recording of the concerto. I approached Susan Napodano DelGiorno, of eOne Music, with whom I had a working relationship that included four previous releases.
Susan was excited to record Mason’s work and asked “Wolf Ears” Silas Brown to engineer the project.
We had two days to record the Bates concerto, the Barber concerto, and another premiere, John Corigliano’s “Lullaby for Natalie” with Leonard Slatkin. Mason was in the recording booth, as was John, Mason’s teacher at the Juilliard School. John spoke of Barber’s influence on his music when I was recording the concerto. For an incredible moment, three generations of composers admired each others’ works.
Mason wanted to change the ending of the concerto during the recording sessions. We tried to incorporate the changes several times, but he decided to stick with the original—a good thing, as I didn’t want to go to prison for murdering the composer.
Afterword: During the evolution of the Bates Violin Concerto, from initial idea to the present, I met my husband, married, had two daughters, went through three different violins, and made six recordings.
Mason also married, had two children, served as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was honored as Composer of the Year in 2012–13 and 2014–15 with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and received the prestigious Heinz Award.
He is the most-performed American composer of his generation and is now composer-in-residence with the National Symphony in Washington, DC. Few new concertos get performed as often as the Bates, which is a testament to its beauty, ability to connect with audiences, and the efforts of so many people along the way.
One can never predict the destiny of a new composition or know if it will live a long life, but to watch many of my colleagues embark on similar journeys to help expand the violin literature is encouraging. I will be repeating the steps I have described for new concert works by Einojuhani Rautavaara and Huang Ruo. And I’m not going to stop there.