A New Violin Concerto

I’m a freelance violinist, and it is not a glamorous life.

Last weekend, I played in the North State Symphony’s concerts in Chico and Redding, California. It went like this. Go to wedding rehearsal as the officiating pastor Friday afternoon, then directly to NSS rehearsal. Saturday, go to NSS rehearsal dressed for the wedding. Explain several times why I’m in a suit and tie. After the rehearsal, officiate at the wedding. Then play in the NSS concert. Sunday, preach in church, then guzzle coffee and a sandwich while my son drives me to Redding for the second NSS performance in the afternoon. Flee that performance to return to the church and teach again in the evening.

All of us are doing some version of that schedule every concert weekend.

To such disarray, add some existential angst. Orchestras are expensive to run and their audiences have conservative tastes. Most ensembles at the level of the NSS aim to deliver the standard classical repertoire with (maybe) some audience-building flair. Musicians like us are not usually playing risky new pieces (or even risky old pieces).

But, in this respect, the NSS has been a standout group from its first season in 2001. Kyle Wiley Pickett consistently programed modernist and new music, and he was able to challenge our audiences with good humor and wise dosage. Scott Seaton is building on this legacy in a big way. In his first two seasons, there was a work of new music on every single program. Last season, we participated in the premiere of a new violin piece by Libby Larsen, one of the most important contemporary American composers.

 Dan Pinkston

Dan Pinkston

Dan Pinkston, the composer from Simpson University in Redding, has written a terrific violin concerto, which was brought to life last weekend by Chloe Trevor, a young virtuoso from Texas.

Pinkston’s piece is full of orchestrational gems, from well-chosen combinations of instruments to the addition of unusual sounds like water-filled crystal glasses tuned to a perfect fifth. He makes the orchestra by turns terrifying, haunting, and beautiful. Pinkston also weaves quotations into the piece from disparate sources — “Somebody” by Depeche Mode, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and Pinkston’s own song, “Jesus Wept.”

An especially strong feature of the concerto is Pinkston’s violin writing. There’s this term violinistic that means, roughly, “appropriate for the weird way the violin works —with the bow, four strings, and no frets — and for the bizarre and obsessive frame of mind a violinist is in while playing.” Pinkston wrote a violinistic piece. He made the most of spreading notes across the strings, calling for different hand positions to create unusual harmonies. He also created many lyrical moments by placing the solo line in strong registers in relation to the rest of the orchestra.

 Chloe Trevor

Chloe Trevor

Trevor plays in a splendidly well-organized way. Even though Pinkston created a difficult violin part, she had no problem making music with it. Her tone is marvelous, both up close in rehearsal and in the hall. Her intonation is spot-on, and her facility with double-stops (playing multiple voices at once) is fine as can be.

I was curious how the piece was received by the audience, so I asked two colleagues who were in the hall in Chico to report in. Joshua Hegg (piano) and Matthew Weiner (violin) are some of the prime movers of Uncle Dad’s Art Collective, and their wheelhouse is jazz.

Hegg thought the work was “marvelous.” He especially liked the “woody percussive” sound of the snap-pizzicato in the cellos and basses. (This is pinching and then plucking the string up from the fingerboard so that it snaps back against the wood. Sounds like Robin Hood shooting an opera singer.) Hegg also noted the big dynamic contrasts. “I’m a sucker for the huge crescendos that go nowhere.” His only proviso was that the opening seemed “a bit scattered for my tastes.”

Weiner agree that the piece was “great,” singling out the water glasses for special praise. He said that they projected well into the house, though neither of us could figure out whether they were amplified. Weiner liked the “texture that they created when paired with the rest of the orchestra.” He also loved that a lot of the piece was “downright scary.”

Weiner said the audience seemed really enthusiastic about the concerto, and Hegg agreed — though he wondered if local pride might have played a role. Regardless, the audience response looked strongly positive to us onstage. (The only exception I could see was young lad in the front row, who listened with decided skepticism.)

Bringing a new work to an audience is always a fantastic experience, and especially gratifying when the risk pays off and the applause is genuinely appreciative. It makes the less glamorous aspects of a violinist’s life well worth it. Plus, the world has a new married couple!