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Viola Concerto (2014)

for Nadia, friend and teacher
Viola & Orchestra, 24'

Co-commissioned by Orquesta y Coro Nacionales de España, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Festival de Saint Denis and the National Arts Centre Orchestra and Alexander Shelley, Music Director Designate. First performed on 6 February 2015 by Nadia Sirota (viola) and Orquesta Nacionales de España, conducted by Nicholas Collon.

My viola concerto (2014) has a traditional structure: a fast movement, a slow movement, and a very fast third movement. The first movement begins with the solo viola at the centre of a crystalline structure of harp, piano, celeste, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and woodwinds all playing competing polyrhythms. Jagged unison brass interrupts these more delicate episodes, and the brass and crystalline material compete vigorously. Occasionally, the viola will play a quick duet with the timpani — a spatial displacement across the orchestra. About 4 minutes in, the viola and orchestra enter into a more traditional relationship between soloist and accompaniment, outlining a long series of descending chords. A trumpet solo emerges from this, and suddenly the whole thing breaks down into insect-like tuned percussion, and the solo violist playing in a quartet with the three frontmost orchestral violists.

The second movement is a long series of slowly-shifting drones in the strings, with a long, plaintive viola solo. The violist’s intervals expand and expand, culminating in a vertiginous tuba solo and a large orchestral explosion. Out of this, a dreamy landscape comes into view and fades away. The third movement is pulse-based, precise, and constantly plays with rhythms existing in three, four, or six cycles — the result should be a seemingly friendly surface with a slightly menacing undercurrent. Eventually, all the friendly material vanishes and we are left with two different kinds of “panic” music — bright flashes of polyrhythms from the percussion (here, the crystalline structures have become razor-like) and giant vertical chords from the brass. The viola’s cadenza here is quiet, tense, and fragile, and gives way into an extended passage during which the convivial instrumental pairings from the first movement become volatile and extreme. The piece ends in a state of frozen panic: all the material we’ve heard before is antagonised, snarled at, and damaged.

The concerto is dedicated to the extraordinary violist Nadia Sirota, for whom it was written and by whom it was premiered.

Nico Muhly

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