The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto

About the Work

Jörg Widmann Composer: Jörg Widmann
© Thomas May

Thanks to the well-known fact of Beethoven's deafness, it's easy to forget that he also had a formidable career as a pianist until his hearing loss made it impossible to continue performing. Beethoven actually pursued a dual-track musical life when he arrived in Vienna - another way in which he followed in Mozart's footsteps - and divided his time between composing and performing at the keyboard. Only over the last century did this time-tested pattern became the exception rather than the rule, as composers tended to specialize and secure a steady income by taking on academic positions.

Jörg Widmann's musical career hearkens back to an earlier era of composers who are also virtuoso soloists. Born in June 1973 in Munich, he started playing clarinet during his childhood; the pleasure of improvising soon stoked the desire to compose his own music, and he began formal composition lessons at the age of eleven. But the clarinet remains central to his life as a musician. Indeed, Widmann is recognized as a top-class virtuoso on the instrument. Visit his website and you'll be astounded by how he manages to juggle an active performance schedule of soloist and chamber music engagements - not counting his gigs as a conductor - with the commissions that keep pouring in (the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics are among those that have come knocking). National Symphony audiences had an opportunity to experience these double personalities in tandem two years ago, when Widmann made his NSO debut as the soloist in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto on a program that also included his contemporary glass-harmonica gloss on Mozart, Armonica.

Yet Widmann's success as a clarinet soloist has not interrupted his tireless productivity. Still only forty years old, Widmann has built up a formidable catalogue of compositions. He benefited from a brilliant string of mentors including Wilfried Hiller, Heiner Goebbels, the late Hans Werner Henze, and Wolfgang Rihm (who left an especially lasting impression on the young artist). Over the past decade and a half, Widmann has established his own position at the forefront of composers from Germany today, winning such honors as the Paul Hindemith Prize, the Arnold Schönberg Prize, the Berlin Philharmonic's Claudio Abbado Composition Prize, and the Elise L. Stoeger Prize of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, among many others. His prestigious composer residencies have been with the likes of the Lucerne Festival, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, the Konzerthaus in Vienna, the Cologne Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra.

It's particularly through his cycle of string quartets that Widmann the composer has become known. For many listeners the quartets have provided entrée to a musical thinker whose interests extend over many other chamber and piano compositions; pieces for smaller ensemble; large-scale orchestral works; and such stage works as Das Gesicht im Spiegel ("The Face in the Mirror"), an opera about human cloning that Opernwelt magazine called the most-important world premiere in 2003, and his mostrecent opera, Babylon (premiered at the Bavarian Staatsoper in 2012), which brings to mind a sci-fi riff on Nabucco. For the latter project Widmann teamed up with the philosopher/cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk, and he has also partnered with leading figures in other artistic disciplines, such as the visual artist Anselm Kiefer.

The Violin Concerto was written in 2006 on a commission from the touring Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and premiered by that ensemble on September 17, 2007, in Essen, with Manfred Honeck conducting. Up to that point Widmann had written several concerto and concertante works - including the trumpet concerto ad absurdum (which is, well, absurdly difficult) and the fascinating Echo-Fragmente for his own instrument, a piece that calls for two separately tuned orchestras (one modern, the other of period instruments).

The challenges Widmann typically sets for himself as a performer have clearly affected the way he thinks about the concerto format. Perhaps the most frequently encountered word commentators resort to when describing Widmann's music is excess: its tendency to press emotions to the limits (and beyond), which goes hand in hand with outrageously virtuosic demands. "The question as to what a solo concerto is has often led me to these excessive forms," Widmann has stated. "Here, in the Violin Concerto," however, "everything is different: it has a light air...."

"Light," that is, in the sense of a translucent, even rapturous, clarity that informs every moment of this extraordinary single-movement composition. Lasting about a half-hour, the Violin Concerto is characteristic of Widmann in the way a deep sense of the musical past informs its fabric even as he reimagines the parameters of a solo concerto. The Guardian's music critic Tom Service aptly captures this aspect in one of his profiles of the composer: "The reason I think Widmann's music is so invigorating and important is that it not only charts a new musical and imaginative terrain - one that is joyously free to plunder the entirety of music history from Mozart to Lachenmann for its own ends - but also has so much to say about the way we hear the music of the past." In his orchestral overture Con brio, for example, Widmann "traces" rather than copies fragments from Beethoven's Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, absorbing them into his own voice.

The Violin Concerto immediately evokes memories of the great Alban Berg concerto for this instrument as a model, as if Widmann were summoning the spirit of early twentieth-century Viennese expressionism for our wired age. Shostakovich and Bartók may also come to mind. At the same time, orchestral precision and prismatic coloration are as essential to the musical content as is the manipulation of the thematic material we hear in the opening minute. Widmann's exquisite ear for orchestral nuance pays homage to Pierre Boulez (another important early influence) and later French composers. And in terms of the Concerto's overall form - a single span whose inner movements are locked together in artfully hidden transitions - the Seventh Symphony of Sibelius is a landmark to which Widmann has alluded. Yet the result avoids feeling like a merely eclectic piling on of sources, for Widmann sustains a remarkable sense of a concentrated, unified vision across the length of the piece.

And he asks for the soloist to do the same. Written for Christian Tetzlaff - who has also recorded the work under Daniel Harding (on the Ondine label) - the Concerto allows the soloist no "off-stage" time. Widmann treats the violinist as an Orphic protagonist, a muse who may guide us through a bleak and forbidding underworld - the singing voice that negotiates a way through a continually transforming soundscape of thematic motifs, harmonies, timbres.

Widmann doesn't even take the idea of a beginning for granted. Unlike, say, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with its in medias res orchestral motor, the first sounds we hear, from the soloist, give the illusion of a curtain gone up on music that's already been playing. Instructed to play in a style "drunk with beauty, gushingly" in the opening measures, the soloist reaches down to its lowest note on its lowest (G) string before beginning a tentative pattern of ascent, then fall, then ascent, again and again. Despite the large orchestra called for, Widmann aggregates colors sparingly, often in softer dynamics - a boom of double basses, then paired with the violas, for example, when the orchestra first enters - and sets them in striking contrast. In place of linear "events," the orchestra seems to generate a kind of energy field through which the violin leads the listener.

About two-thirds through, as a deceptive calm spreads through the orchestra, comes a terrifying moment: an abrupt chasm of silence seems to signal the end. But the music resumes, passionately, even fiercely. Further cataclysm threatens, nostalgia beckons, and then - a new, mysterious calm eventually settles in. Widmann has the instrument veer into its other extreme in the last measures, reaching into the stratosphere while simultaneously building a subtle crescendo. The soloist comes to rest on a long-held, ultrahigh C and ends the Concerto in a subdued, shadowy state of irenic ambivalence.