to airy thinness beat


Chamber Concerto for Viola and 6 Instruments
Solo Viola, Cl/BsCl, 1Pc, Pf, Vln, Vcl, Db
Commissioned for Firebird Ensemble by the Harvard Musical Association
First performance: October 2009 Kate Vincent and Firebird Ensemble, Boston
Recorded on New World CD - Firebird Ensemble, Jeffrey Means, conductor, Kate Vincent, viola

Program notes: 

The title of this 17-minute chamber concerto for viola and six instruments comes from John Donne’s poem, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.  Appearing as an epigraph on the title page of the score is this excerpt:

...endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

Very early in the compositional process, as usual for me, I worked with soloist Kate Vincent to get a good sense of the viola’s sound world and Kate’s own unique voice as an artist.  Two musical gestures took root early on: soft, intense suspended figures in the extreme high range of the viola contrasted with its open strings and harmonies they generate; and an extended elegiac melody as if literally sung by the soloist.  These musical ideas form the basis of the first movement and a good deal of the third.  They also got Kate and me discussing titles and poetic sources.  Some months earlier we had discovered a shared enthusiasm for Donne’s poetry and this particular poem, so we mined the text for a title.  The words fit to an uncanny degree certain aspects of the music as well as its emotional landscape.

The three-movement design of to airy thinness beat varies from the fast-slow-fast sequence of many concertos.  Here a slow first movement presents the soft, suspended music framing an extended elegiac melody.  A driving middle movement features heavy and somewhat jagged dance rhythms, complete with miniature drum kit, culminating in a final tutti passage initially burying the viola which comes into the clear only at the end.  The third movement presents a sharp juxtaposition of fast, aggressive, even angry music with suddenly very slow and supple lyricism.  At the end some sort of big band appears, driving the music to a climax before the viola disappears, accompanied by single strokes of a suspended cymbal, into resonant silence.

to airy thinness beat was co-commissioned by Firebird Ensemble and the Harvard Musical Association and completed in June, 2009.     - Donald Crockett