New Works Are The Passion of Five Ravinia Stars

Superb Novae

By Wynne Delacoma


Many of us could listen to Beethoven symphonies, Bach partitas, Shostakovich string quartets, or some similar mix thereof all day long. Some of us do.

But music is a living art. And no matter how glorious its past, in order to be fully alive, it must be constantly replenished by sounds that reflect the world as it is today, not as it was 300 or even 75 years ago. This season’s Ravinia schedule includes a range of artists who will be playing the music of the here and now as well as masters of the past.

On June 16 German violinist Carolin Widmann gave the American premiere of In vivo by French composer Pascal Dusapin on a recital that also included Bach’s monumental Partita No. 2. On July 21 the Emerson String Quartet played Lowell Liebermann’s latest string quartet, his fifth, which they commissioned and first performed last year. Their program also included quartets by Dvořák and Beethoven. On August 19 pianist David Kaplan will present excerpts from a project titled “New Dances of the League of David,” inspired by Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, a beloved collection of short, dance-infused pieces. Kaplan asked 15 composers—among them Augusta Read Thomas, Caroline Shaw, and Samuel Carl Adams—to write short pieces that he will scatter throughout Schumann’s original collection. On August 22 a recital by young Austrian violinist Augustin Hadelich will feature the Chicago premiere of David Lang’s mystery sonatas alongside pieces by Schumann, Janáček, and André Previn. And on September 6 the ever-inventive violinist Jennifer Koh brings her latest mix of old and new, performing two of Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano along with the Chicago premiere of Bridgetower Fantasy, a piece she commissioned from jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. Iyer’s piece is inspired by Beethoven’s dramatic “Kreutzer” Sonata, which will close Koh’s Ravinia recital with pianist Shai Wosner.

Virtuosos like those among Ravinia’s artists could build respectable careers sticking with standard repertoire, touring the world with performances of well-known concertos and solo pieces by household-name composers ranging from Haydn and Mozart to Shostakovich and Ravel. But each feels an irresistible itch to try something different.

Koh and Kaplan decided to directly link old and new music. Koh’s Beethoven recital grew out of her earlier, multiyear project built around Bach. A Chicago-area native with a thriving international career, Koh had avoided performing Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, pinnacles of the repertoire, in public. In 2009 she hit upon the idea of pairing Bach’s music with pieces by contemporary composers, some of which she commissioned. The concerts drew raves around the world. Bridgetower Fantasy is part of a similar project focused on Beethoven’s 10 sonatas for violin and piano. Koh has devised three different programs that include the Beethoven sonatas and new pieces by Iyer, Jorg Widmann, Andrew Norman, and Anthony Cheung, an assistant professor of music at the University of Chicago.

“The Beethoven came out of the same question as the Bach,” says Koh. “I wondered, ‘Why have I not performed these Beethoven sonatas publicly?’ It’s about addressing a kind of fear. There’s such a long performance history for these works. For me, it always became this question of what can I possibly add to that dialogue? Of course I studied them when I was a student, but I hadn’t performed them in public for many, many years.” Some of Koh’s advisors didn’t think much of the idea. Does the world really need to hear the Beethoven sonatas from a young American violinist known for her fearless approach to contemporary music? (This past May she gave the world premiere of Anna Clyne’s Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.)

“It made me think further,” says Koh. “When I explore these ideas, I always want to turn them into larger questions. I remember thinking that if I were a German violinist, they would tell me this was the perfect idea, that it falls perfectly within people’s expectations. So I went further with that idea to explore this notion of diversity in classical music. All of the composers we chose for this project represent something different.”

Kaplan, a native New Yorker who attended Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute in 2008 and 2009, had an even more radical idea for blending old and new music. His “New Dances of the League of David” began to germinate three years ago, fed by his love for Schumann and his own ever-expanding professional and social circle of composers. “Like most projects as involved and big as this one,” says Kaplan, “the development is a long and slow process, and it has to be organic. Schumann happens to be the composer I have the longest relationship with as a pianist. He’s been very important to me for 20 years now. And along the way I also developed relationships with contemporary composers; they were colleagues or friends. I was on the lookout for a project that would develop those relationships. But I couldn’t decide which of these composers with whom I had become close I would approach first.”

He decided to ask 15 of them to work on a single project. The 18 pieces in Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze are brilliant miniatures, vivid portraits of two characters, Florestan and Eusebius, conjured up from Schumann’s fertile imagination. Why not ask a dozen or so contemporary composers to comment and expand on Schumann’s gallery? “Conceptually,” says Kaplan. “I was thinking of a cocktail party where Schumann was the host. Given the semi-programmatic nature of the Davidsbündlertänze, those works were fertile ground. I could ask a number of composers I admired to write music that would not only be inspired by the Schumann but also fit in elegantly or provocatively with the original material itself.”

Kaplan set a time limit of one to three minutes for each new piece and asked composers to identify in advance the movement that inspired them, to avoid duplication. “I tried to strike a balance between things being too preconceived and anarchy,” he says. “Surprisingly, there was a minimal amount of stepping on [other composers’] toes.” During performances he chooses among the new pieces to keep concerts to manageable length. “This [project] grows out of my ideals of programming,” Kaplan says. “There should be bridges between new music and traditional concert music. It’s important to demonstrate the connections that legitimately exist between pieces written today and pieces written yesterday.”

Widmann, on the other hand, never concerned herself with building bridges. As a student violinist growing up in Germany, it never occurred to her to distinguish between music written today and pieces written centuries ago. She was the kid sister violinist of an older brother who played clarinet and also composed. [Coincidentally, a piece by her brother, Jorg Widmann, is featured in Koh’s “Bridge to Beethoven” project.] “That has to do with my family ties,” says Widmann. “For me, really, there never existed a difference between the traditional repertoire and the contemporary repertoire. Early on I was confronted by my brother, who wanted to try out things, or his friends. For me it always was Mozart next to Stockhausen and Nono next to Beethoven. It was never anything strange. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that not everybody did what I did.”

Dusapin, who composed In vivo for Widmann, is a well-known composer in Europe, and he and Widmann had met at a few of her concerts. Unlike some composers working with unfamiliar solo instruments, Dusapin didn’t need any technical advice from Widmann about how to compose for the violin. “He knows very well how a violin works,” she says. “He didn’t employ any strange techniques. It’s written in a very traditional way. It’s three movements and everything is written in normal tradition for the violin, normal bowing, normal fingers.” But normal doesn’t mean easy.

“I received the score in January,” says Widmann, who gave the world premiere of In vivo this past spring at a German chamber music festival. “I was very glad I did because it was very difficult to put together. Because it’s so traditional, there’s absolutely nothing to hide. There are tons of runs, runs, runs, runs, and they really need to be practiced. You really need to know where to go. There’s no way you can fake or hide or in any way make it not absolutely perfect.”

The Emerson String Quartet is one of the most eminent ensembles on the scene today. Founded in 1976, they are known for their deep insight into the music of masters, ranging from Mozart to Shostakovich, as well as their interest in contemporary composers. Violinist Eugene Drucker estimates that they have performed an average of one world premiere per year over their nearly 40-year history. “Even though we have never considered ourselves a quartet that specializes in contemporary music,” he says, “it’s certainly been a significant part of our activity. [Performing new music] is important because musicians have always played contemporary music, music of their times.” In the mid-20th century, he says, there was “a certain disconnect” between music that might appeal immediately to listeners and the music that composers were actually writing. “But I think performers didn’t stop feeling it was an important part of their activity to play a role in the continuation of the history of music,” says Drucker. “If composers are going to continue writing for string quartet, it’s part of a quartet’s responsibility to provide a forum in which these pieces can be heard.”

Lowell Liebermann
is a prolific American
 composer whose compositions range from 
full-length operas to
 solo works. His String 
Quartet No. 5, commissioned for the 
Emerson Quartet, is 
the first Liebermann
piece in their repertoire. They received 
the score in June 2014
and gave the world
premiere that September. “We’ve found it to be a very accessible work for audiences,” says Drucker. “We’ve played it at least a dozen times, and people find it easy to connect to. It has long, sweeping, neo-Romantic melodic lines with poignant harmonies underneath. But also, it has a perceptible narrative arc, so to speak. It starts very mysteriously and ends in a similar vein.

“There’s that old yardstick test,” he said. “Can you go home whistling it? It has a few melodies like that.”

One month after Ravinia audiences hear Liebermann’s new quartet, violinist Augustin Hadelich, a 2003 alumnus of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, will introduce them to mystery sonatas by David Lang, a high-profile American composer whose music has a mesmerizing, contemplative quality. Lang’s haunting Little Match Girl Passion was a highlight of Ravinia’s 2013 season.

Lang’s mystery sonatas grew out of his 2013/14 residency at Carnegie Hall. “He wrote this solo violin piece for me,” says Hadelich, “as part of a festival he was programming at Carnegie Hall. What I like about his music is that it’s very emotional, very expressive. We worked together. He would show me what he had written and ask me questions. I would make some comments, but actually he knows what’s possible for the violin. I didn’t ask him to change much.”

The piece has seven movements, and a complete performance runs more than 40 minutes, a daunting length for both performer and audience. Hadelich usually plays excerpts, as he will for his Ravinia program, rather than the entire piece. “Each movement has its challenges,” he says. “It’s beautiful music, and the movements are very contrasting with each other. I’ve never been bored playing this piece.”

Hadelich adds contemporary pieces to his recitals as a change from the relatively standard concerto repertoire that orchestras typically want him to play. “It’s been part of what I do for a long time,” he says. “People at orchestras ask a lot for the Mendelssohn, the Beethoven, and the Brahms [concertos]. Those are wonderful pieces, but it’s exciting after all these years playing the violin to do new things. It makes the recital program more colorful. There are such interesting discoveries.”