Violin Concerto (“The Bulls of Bashan”)

(2000)
Duration: c. 18 mins

The Violin Concerto, scored for solo violin and strings alone, was commissioned by the Primavera Chamber Orchestra for its leader Paul Manley and is the second piece that I have written for them. The first, The Porazzi Fragment, for 21 solo strings, came about because of my admiration for the approach that the orchestra takes to performance - playing without a conductor, in effect as chamber musicians. In the case of the concerto I did not want to write a virtuoso show-piece, but rather to draw on the orchestra’s alertness as an ensemble. The solo part is essentially lyrical and there is no cadenza as such. But I was also conscious of the fact that, as with a baroque concerto, the soloist may also direct the work - and does so here.

Given the name of the orchestra and the fact that this is a violin concerto, there are a number of allusions to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There is also an extensive use of mutes, including staggered transitions from muted to unmuted and vice versa, like a cross-fade in recording. This use of mutes brought about the subtitle, which comes from an aside by Cecil Forsythe in his book on orchestration in which he pours scorn on the noise which string players would make when attaching mutes to their instruments (he was writing in 1914). Here is the passage in full.

“Unhappily the mutes remain something of a problem on the mechanical side of concert-room organisation. When they are required the noise and fuss is most distressing, and, as these moments always occur when a pp is approaching, the musical attention of the audience is completely distracted. About fifty or sixty players all rattle their bows down on their desks in order to be free to search their waistcoat pockets. When the mutes have been dragged out they are fitted to the bridges with a studied and elaborate caution which may be necessary to preserve the bridges from injury, but which gives an impression that the players are taking part in a solemn cabalistic rite. And all this occurs in 1914 when inventors are as thick as bulls in Bashan.”

The concerto is dedicated to Paul Manley and the Primavera Chamber Orchestra.

Gavin Bryars