Tim Fain and Nicholas Britell Bring Wide(screen) sounds with "Once Upon a Score"

By Kyle MacMillan 

Even just a decade or two ago, classical musicians might look back occasionally to the Baroque era or try out a new work, but most stuck to Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, and the genre’s other tried-and-true standard bearers. But today, many of the field’s younger generation of artists, who can access music from virtually any time or place in seconds on their iPhones, don’t feel nearly so confined. They might play a quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven one night and then join forces with an indie-rock band the next.

Violinist Tim Fain is a poster child for this new musical openness and ecumenicalism. But beyond just mixing genres, he is also fascinated with how music can engage more of the senses and interact with dance and film and new technologies like the fast-evolving realm of virtual reality. “Not to say that’s inevitable, this direction,” Fain says, “but it does feel that way almost—a greater connection with music and visuals and the way we perceive the world generally.”

Chicago audiences will get a taste of Fain’s wide-ranging interests when he teams with longtime friend, pianist, and Academy Award–nominated composer Nicholas Britell, for “Once Upon a Score,” a touring multimedia program that will make its debut on December 2 at Ravinia. Through music, visuals, and commentary, they will explore some of their collaborations in the realms of dance, virtual reality, and especially film. Britell is best known for his scores to 12 Years a Slave (2013), Free States of Jones (2015), and this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Moonlight—excerpts from all three will be featured, as well as highlights of other projects that the two have worked on in one way or another.

The lanky, six-foot-two violinist studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and later The Juilliard School in New York and toured nationally with Musicians from Marlboro following summers at the Vermont festival—all blue-chip classical institutions. But from the beginning of his career, Fain knew that he didn’t just want to perform Mendelssohn or Mozart.

When he was growing up, he listened to not only classical music but also rock and jazz on the radio. “As a kid, I wasn’t really thinking about these distinctions between different types of music,” Fain says. “I just knew when I loved something, and that feeling has really stayed with me.”

So when he made his debut with conductor Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, it was not surprising that he served as soloist not in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto or a similar standard but in Aaron Jay Kernis’s 1996 violin concerto Lament and Prayer. He has also performed works by such noted contemporary composers as Christopher Cerrone, Nico Muhly, and Kevin Puts. “It feels like a great time to be exploring music written by living composers,” Fain says. “There is a huge wealth of different styles and people writing music that I think is just fantastic.”

No musical connection has been more important to Fain than that with Philip Glass. When the violinist was young, he watched a documentary about the composer’s celebrated opera Einstein on the Beach, and he recalls being taken even then with its “extremely memorable sights and sounds.” In his late teens or early 20s, he was asked to perform Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (1987), and that engagement launched his “deep enjoyment” of the composer’s music and set him on a path of more intense involvement.

In 2007, Glass invited Fain to join the Philip Glass Ensemble on a tour of a new song cycle the composer had written based on Leonard Cohen’s poetry, Book of Longing. “It was just a magical time,” the violinist says. In that work, the violin takes center stage for only sporadically, so Fain pressed Glass to write a work for him that showcased the instrument in more depth. That led to the seven-movement Partita for Solo Violin (2010–11), which Fain recorded in 2015 and has performed in duo recitals with Glass.

Becoming involved with film just seemed natural to the violinist, who was born in Santa Monica and surrounded by the movie industry growing up. Fain’s first direct exposure to Hollywood came in 1987 when he sang in a boys’ choir under composer-conductor John Williams, who led the studio recording of his score for Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. His first mature experience on a film came in 2005 when he was asked to supply the off-camera solos for the violin that Richard Gere’s character plays in Bee Season. Fain happened to know Nancy Allen, who served as music editor of the film, and he needed little convincing to participate. In addition to be taken with the Myla Goldberg novel on which the movie was based, he had long been a fan of Juliette Binoche, who also starred in the movie.

Fain has since performed on the soundtrack for Black Swan and collaborated extensively with Britell, whom he got to know while they were students in New York and playing music together informally. He co-arranged the on-screen musical segments and supplied the “voice” for the violin of the lead character in 12 Years a Slave, and he performed on the soundtrack of Free State of Jones. In addition, the violinist worked closely with Britell in perform­ing and recording the score for Moonlight. Because of their close ties, the two decided to put together “Once Upon a Score.” “I think this program delves out into tangents,” Fain says, “but really always comes back to this idea of collaboration and friendship and what that sounds like.”

That Fain and Britell are premiering their collaborative concert at Ravinia is hardly surprising given the violinist’s connections to the festival, another of those aforementioned institutions where he tuned his strings. In 1996 and ’97, he was a student at Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, the prestigious summer conservatory that boasts such other alumni as soprano Nadine Sierra, tenor Paul Appleby, violinist Lisa Batiashvili, and pianists Jeremy Denk and Yuja Wang. “It does feel like coming home, playing there,” Fain says. He has since returned to Ravinia for a recital with pianist Cory Smythe in 2008 as well as two appearances in conjunction with Glass: two dates on the Book of Longing tour and a duo-recital marking the composer’s 75th birthday in 2012.

At the time this article went to press, the two were still finalizing the program, but it is sure to include excerpts from Moonlight and Free State of Jones. Also heard will be “Yarni’s Waltz” and “Devil’s Reel” from 12 Years a Slave, as well “Devil’s Dance,” in which Fain took the traditional tune in “Devil’s Reel” and “turned it on its head,” giving it a whole new sound.

In addition to Fain’s music for Resonance, a Google virtual reality project, there will be selections from the violinist’s still-touring 2011/12 multimedia project “Portals,” which includes music by Muhly and choreography by Benjamin Millepied. Fain calls the innovative 90-minute work an exploration of what it means to be a live performer in the age of digital media. It consists of the violinist interacting with projections of video performances by Britell, three Juilliard dancers and American Public Media host Fred Child, who recites poetry by Leonard Cohen. “There are moments in ‘Portals,’ ” Fain says, “where people have told me that they have forgotten that the pianist that they see onscreen and life-size with me onstage is not actually there. I think that really speaks to what I was trying to get at with ‘Portals,’ this slightly exhilarating but also terrifying feeling of: What is real and what is virtual?”

It’s an off-balance sensation that also aptly sums up Fain’s experimental, multisensory approach to all his music making and collaboration. 

Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.