The Kennedy Center

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 30

About the Work

Oliver Knussen Composer: Oliver Knussen
© Peter Laki

It is hard not to wax Romantic (at least a little) when you're writing a violin concerto. After all, the instrument wants long, soaring melodic lines and virtuoso passages—elements that the authors of the great concertos from the 19th and early 20th centuries supplied so generously.

The soloist for whom Oliver Knussen wrote his violin concerto at the beginning of the 21st century, Pinchas Zukerman, has been for many years one of the foremost exponents of the Romantic concerto legacy. The Israeli-born violinist-conductor and the British composer-conductor have known each other for many years: in 1985, Zukerman conducted the U.S. premiere of Knussen's fantasy opera Where the Wild Things Are (after Maurice Sendak's classic children's book of the same title). "[H]e asked me to write something longer ago than either of us probably care to remember," Knussen commented in his notes written for the world premiere, given in Pittsburgh on April 5, 2002, with the composer leading the Pittsburgh Symphony. The finished product is a tribute to a great artist colleague and important addition to the catalog of one of our most distinguished contemporary composers.

Knussen further noted: "At times the violinist resembles a tightrope walker, progressing along a (decidedly unstable) high wire strung across the span that separates the opening and closing sounds of the piece." The image is telling: it captures at once the solo writing, which favors the highest register of the instrument, and the delicate balance between soloist and orchestra throughout the concerto's three interconnected movements.

Writing after the European premiere held at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 2003, critic Andrew Clements gave a succinct description of the piece in The Guardian:

"[The work is] framed by the sounds of bells and a high harmonic for the solo violin, from which everything appears to flow in the opening Recitative, and into which all of the energy of the final Gigue is absorbed at the end. The central panel is an Aria, a serene violin line steadily unwound over pulsing orchestral figures, which just once curdles into something more threatening. It is beautifully direct."

For his part, Peter Dobrin, reviewing the concerto for The Philadelphia Inquirer, concluded: "Romanticism still has a place in music, and few composers can make it sound as original and compelling as Knussen."