for violin and orchestra — (2(picc).1(eh).2(b.cl).1(cbsn) – 188.8.131.52. – perc(3) – hp – pno – str)
Commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The world premiere was given by the same orchestra with Jennifer Koh, violin, under the baton of Peter Oundjian on May 25, 26, and 27, 2018.
Everything in 2017—personally, physically, politically—felt harder than usual. And while I am not a political artist by disposition, my work is both inherently and intentionally autobiographical, meaning: that personal is political.
Throughout the year, I read and re-read Angels in America by Tony Kushner, one of my favorite works of art. Its epigraph, from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Testing Tree”, became a kind of mantra for me, and I often found myself repeating it as I walked the streets of Brooklyn:
“In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.”
In the new year, as I began writing my violin concerto, that mantra—particularly the phrase “breaks and breaks”—still stuck in my mind. It seems an apt descriptor of this new work that, though divided into seven short movements and therefore often “breaking” character, is played without pause and therefore has no actual “breaks.”
“Breaks and Breaks” is both palindromic and cyclic in form. In the opening—“How many other things have wings that I didn’t know had wings?”— a lithe, light violin line soars above the orchestra. It is cut off abruptly as the second movement breaks into a violent and rhythmic dialogue between soloist and orchestra.
A brief reminiscence of the opening melody in the third movement leads into the fourth, “I see it feelingly,” which is the emotional core of the work. In this movement, the violin plays a slow and plaintive melody, filled with buzzing microtones and punctuated by the bass drum. As the violin gradually soars upward, the orchestra builds to an explosive climax, while the violin plays a series of increasingly elaborate ornaments against loosely aligned metallic figuration in the piano, harp, percussion and strings. After a brief interlude, eight tolling bells lead to yet another climax, this time longer, more intense, and more sustained.
The fifth movement, “It dissolves now,” a kind of cadenza, emerges from the embers of the fourth’s decay. Violin arpeggios are refracted through sustained orchestral strings played very close to the bridge (sul ponticello), creating a sea of unstable and fluctuating overtones. The figuration gradually reveals the original folk-like melody, breaks into the sixth movement, a recapitulation of the second, but now lower and punctuated by low, highly resonant chords.
The work closes with a brief coda, “It would not decay.” For the first time in the work, the violinist puts down her bow and plays pizzicato. As she plays the opening melody, the orchestra sustains her plucked notes, so that they cannot decay, instead creating of fog of sonorities. The soloist plays a final and stratospherically high iteration of the melody that closes the work suddenly, finally breaking.
“The 34-year-old Mr. Cerrone is among that select group of young composers whose work is known beyond arcane musical circles. His opera “Invisible Cities,” based on Italo Calvino’s short novel of the same name and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, was something of a cultural happening when it received its premiere in 2013. Audiences heard it via headphones while roaming the corridors of Los Angeles’s bustling Union Station, where its scenes unfolded amid unwitting travelers.
Literary sources figure prominently in Mr. Cerrone’s oeuvre, which thus far consists primarily of chamber and solo pieces. So it is with his new Violin Concerto, which carries the title “Breaks and Breaks,” words taken from the final stanza of Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Testing-Tree.” Ironically, the concerto itself contains no pauses, or breaks, within its seven movements. The piece, whose varied imagery was also influenced by several non-Kunitz texts, was written for the Chicago-born violinist Jennifer Koh, a musician of immaculate control, keen intelligence and a slightly cool demeanor, for whom the composer had previously written a short solo work.
The combination of score and soloist could hardly have been better matched. The piece opens with the solo violin calmly ascendant against muted strings, the ambience quickly punctured by disconcerting whispers from the flutes. A range of moods and modes then enter and recede, with the solo line shifting from dizzyingly intense to plaintively soulful and back again. Though attention is mostly focused on the soloist, other voices occasionally spike the mix, including a haunted-sounding piano that augurs darkly against a drumbeat. The short opening melody recurs several times in different guises, but never more movingly than when echoed by massed strings in a gesture of musical community. After rapid figures from the soloist hearken to Bach and an aural fog subsumes them, sharp cries from the violin suggest an impending conclusion, but the end is postponed until after the soloist recedes and a gentle corona of plinking percussion fades out.”David Mermelstein, The Wall Street Journal