The Red Violin

The Chairman Dances
Violin Concerto, ‘The Red Violin’ [UK premiere]
Romeo and Juliet (excerpts)

Joshua Bell (violin)

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 28 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Dramatic scenes, or scenarios, was the thread underlying the works given at this concert; and there was a further link in the first half in that both the Adams and Corigliano pieces are ‘offshoots’ from other musical projects.

In the case of John Adams’s The Chairman Dances (subtitled ‘Foxtrot for Orchestra’), one could say that this is a preparatory ‘study’ for the opera “Nixon in China”, which was completed in 1987. Some have mistakenly thought that this is an excerpt or a re-working of material from the opera – not so, though it might have been one of the ideas finally included, where Madame Mao invites her husband to dance even though he is represented on-stage by a photograph.

Pulsation which becomes persistent (strangely enough not that far removed from Prokofiev’s insistent rhythms) sets the foxtrot in motion. Initially there is a sense of a melody trying to emerge from somewhere and never quite managing it, though eventually the strings oblige with something swooning – perhaps even a little inebriated. Throughout this colourful score, details appear then vanish, all the time illuminated by imaginative scoring, not the least effective of which is the 1920s-sounding brushed drum-kit accompanying music which almost – but not quite – sounds Chinese. A lonely piano joins the percussion towards the end – is Nixon himself trying to participate?

Marin Alsop led a confident rendering, and the Bournemouth players relished their opportunities both collectively and individually.

John Corigliano’s Violin Concerto stems directly from music he wrote for François Girard’s 1997 film “The Red Violin”.

It was not completely clear from the composer’s otherwise lucid and informative programme note just how much music has been taken from the film-score. He mentions the “linking” device of the chaconne for the first movement, a lyrical theme representing the wife of the 17th-century violin-maker, and an idea, in the finale, associated with another character.

Not having seen the film or knowing anything about it, one had to take the work at face value as being “in the great tradition” (the composer’s words) of Romantic violin concertos.

The first movement – ‘Chaconne’ – was initially an independent piece and thus the starting point for the whole concerto, but Corigliano thought it would not ‘stand alone’, although, paradoxically perhaps, I felt it self-sufficient in its own right.

This is music of some passion and intensity, underpinned by the chaconne idea. There are various cadenzas – some with orchestra and some unaccompanied – and some passages with a deal of violence. By contrast, ‘Anna’s theme’ is poignant and lyrical, even if its cinematic origins are obvious.

Three further movements were subsequently added to ‘Chaconne’ to create a structure of some 35 minutes’ duration.

‘Pianissimo scherzo’ is all its title suggested, and delicate passages and isolated notes from soloist and orchestra were deftly realised in this performance. ‘Andante flautando’ initially refers back to the film’s main theme, though the ‘flautando’ of the soloist, joined by alto flute, develops into a touching duet leading directly to ‘Accelerando Finale’ where, intriguingly, solo violin and orchestra are often at different tempos. Both solo and orchestra strings are occasionally called upon to press the bow heavily on their strings, creating what the composer describes as a pitch-less “crunch”. This is an energetic conclusion to the concerto, which was convincingly realised in this performance.

The composer clearly feels that Joshua Bell is the ideal exponent of this music (he played on the film soundtrack), and whilst there is no doubting his commitment, and his lyrical and pyrotechnic playing was formidably impressive, I couldn’t help feeling that a little more sheer heft in places would have been of benefit.

There was a gentleman sitting near me who was writhing and slithering in his seat, punching the air in time with accents, holding his head in his hands and being generally absorbed in the piece. It turned out to be John Corigliano.

Marin Alsop made her own selection of twelve numbers from the three suites Prokofiev derived from his ballet, the first two of which he compiled even before the work reached the theatre.

They were intelligently chosen, providing a judicious balance between tragedy and gaiety and gracefulness and wit. In fact, it was an admirable sequence even if, inevitably, rather ‘bitty’ in overall effect. Alsop ensured that the story was roughly outlined, including one or two of the more popular numbers, though ultimately focussing on the ballet’s tragic conclusion.

The varied character of each movement enabled individual players to shine and whilst the whole orchestra was responsive, one must praise particularly the principal flute (a tender delivery of ‘The Child Juliet’), clarinet, and saxophone whose tangy contribution registered well.

If, ultimately, this was a performance distinctly on the ‘symphonic’ rather than the ‘balletic’ side, it worked extremely well in context, with Alsop drawing fine performances from her players and pacing each section with apposite character.

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