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Steven Mackey: U.S. Premiere of Violin Concerto

Violinist Leila Josefowicz, a strong advocate for new music, played the world premiere of Beautiful Passing,
a new concerto composed for her by Steven Mackey, on October 24 in
Manchester, England, with the BBC Philharmonic under young Slovakian
conductor Juraj Valcuha. Beautiful Passing is a joint
commission of the BBC Philharmonic and the Saint Louis Symphony
Orchestra. Reviewing the world premiere in London’s Daily Telegraph, David Fanning described the work:

contends, asserts, floats, and flickers, but entirely on Mackey’s own
stylistic terms. The piece is all the stronger for the negativity it
grapples with, and maybe that will prove to be so of his work as a
whole. Some starry composers have produced violin concertos in recent
years – Adams and Adès to name but two. Given the choice, Mackey’s is
the one whose acquaintance I would most like to renew.

Mackey’s Beautiful Passing
receives its U.S. premiere at a pair of concerts on November 14 and 15
with Ms. Josefowicz and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under its
music director, David Robertson, during a citywide guitar festival
presented by the SLSO entitled “Electric Nights”. Mackey, a skilled
guitarist who frequently incorporates electric guitar into his
compositions, will be a guest performer during “Electric Nights” on
November 11 and 12 at St. Louis’s Pulitzer Foundation, playing “works
creating an artistic dialogue” with the festival theme of “Old
Masters”. On November 16, the orchestra takes Beautiful Passing to Chicago for a performance at the Harris Theater.

Beautiful Passing employs the traditional acoustic violin rather than a guitar, electric or otherwise. Ms. Josefowicz performed John Adams’s Dharma at Big Sur
on six-string electric violin last season with the Saint Louis
Symphony, and appropriately reverts to an “old master” – her 1724
Guarneri “del Gesù” violin – for the concerto Mackey composed expressly
for her.

In a program note, Steven Mackey
describes the process of writing his new piece, and later reveals that
it was inspired in part by a profound personal event:

I first heard Leila Josefowicz play I was impressed by her robust
virtuosity, her ability to groove hard, and the way she owned every
phrase as if she had made it up herself in that moment. Before starting
I assumed that I would be composing a bright, colorful, and rousing
showpiece. However, by the time I started work, I was preoccupied with
more nuanced themes and the complex contrasts between singing long
lines, brutal objects, and flickering textures. Leila, as it turns out,
is not only a great fiddle player, she is a consummate artist with
great interpretive insight and imagination. I am grateful to her for
encouraging me to resist gratuitous virtuosity and a flashy ending in
favor of a more earnest statement.

The work is in two halves separated by a cadenza. Mackey writes:

first section deals with the interaction between the sharply
contrasting materials of the violin and the orchestra. The violin plays
sustained long lines, mostly serene, sometimes impassioned, but always
singing. The orchestra interrupts with music that is brutal and
cacophonous by comparison. The second part begins with the violin’s own
version of brutality – crushing triple stops – which command, for the
first time, a consensus between the orchestra and soloist. In this
second part they retain their individuality but conspire toward common
goals, unlike the first part.

The governing
metaphor of the work has to do with the violin gaining control of its
own destiny, competing with, commanding and ultimately letting go of
the orchestra. This metaphor arises from my experience, during the
composition of the piece, watching my mother gain control of her
destiny to the point of predicting the day she would let go, predicting
the day of her death. Her last words to me, a few hours before she
died, were, “Please tell everyone I had a beautiful passing.”

Mackey is a professor of music at Princeton University, where he is
currently chairman of the music department, and plays in rock bands.
His compositions are widely played by such performers as the
Grammy-winning new music sextet eighth blackbird, maverick cellist Matt
Haimovitz, the Borromeo and Brentano String Quartets, and Michael
Tilson Thomas, all of whom have recorded his compositions.

November 14 & 15, Saint Louis, MO
November 16, Harris Theater, Chicago
Steven Mackey: Beautiful Passing (U.S. Premiere)
Leila Josefowicz, violin
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra / David Robertson – 111408

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