Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra (LAPA co-commission)
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes ( = piccolo and alto flute), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, piano, strings, and solo bass
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
John Harbison believes that "the youngest generation today has a strong narrative urge." It is not easy to categorize Harbison's music. In a recent phone conversation, he spoke of his enjoyment of the bass' expressiveness within an orchestral context, and how much he loves the very low and high ends of the instrument. This Concerto begins in the instrument's highest register, sounding rather like a whale, or, according to Harbison, a "crazed tenor." Harbison has provided the following note:
This concerto was commissioned by the International Society of Bassists. It is in three movements and lasts roughly 20 minutes.
The first movement, Lamento, begins with an Introduction, which reminds the listener that the bass viol is the oldest instrument in the modern orchestra, grand survivor from the medieval viol family. Near the end of the introduction, the latter two movements are foreshadowed. The Lament begins under emotional duress, gradually moving to a more elegiac tone, which may mask a more dangerous state of mind. A closing section mimes sonic images of farewell.
The second movement is a Cavatina, which my Italian dictionary defines as "a sustained Air." Having played in various chamber music pieces bearing this title, I believe Cavatina has come to mean a song led throughout by a principal player, which eventually arrives at an unpredicted dramatic destination.
Rondo: return. In the classical tradition it refers to the return of themes. In this piece I am playing with the return of a very short motto, which becomes increasingly rough and forthright.
My main experience of the bass viol is traceable to conducting over 50 Bach cantatas and playing in many jazz groups. In both situations my colleague played two roles: ensemble catalyst, and soloist. I've drawn on these associations often, not just in this piece.
- Jessie Rothwell is the Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also writes music, plays oboe, and sings Bulgarian folk music.