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Approaching Northern Darkness

Concerto for Viola & Orchestra
47 minutes | 2004-2005
Score 176 pages

"Dance of Seduction" (Viola and Orchestra)
"Simply, Heartfelt" (Viola and Orchestra)
"Bold Declaration, Spirited" (Viola and Orchestra)

Recorded on ERM compact disc:
Kyiv Philharmonic/Robert Ian Winstin/Sheila Browne

Piano Reduction Available
Score 42 pages

"Dance of Seduction" (Viola and Piano)
"Simply, Heartfelt" (Viola and Piano)
"Bold Declaration, Spirited" (Viola and Piano)

Viola/Piano version on Zyode compact disc:
Sheila Browne/David Brunell

"...looking up into the darkness. Up there...just above me, floats the great secret, the beauty and the mystery. To look into the depths of that mystery, to fix the eyes of the spirit on that bright and enigmatic beauty, to pore over the secret until its symbols cease to be opaque and the light filters through from beyond - there is nothing else in life that matters; there is no rest or possibility of satisfaction in doing anything else."

Aldous Huxley: "Those Barren Leaves", 1925

Compared to violin repertoire, for which so many composers have written their most romantic music, viola repertoire traditionally has a reputation for sadness, partly owing to the acoustical nature of the instrument. Many viola pieces are less showy and more melancholic in nature than their violin counterparts. Knowingly or unknowingly, a number of composers wrote their own farewell, funeral music for the viola, adding to the reputation of the viola as being best suited to elegiac moods. This work desires to establish a new tradition.

Although there is some sharing of ideas, the three movements of this piece can be played individually. Overall, the work features a romantic-style structure and many romantic-style melodies, but these are coupled with a more contemporary rhythmic drive and harmonic vocabulary. The fast first movement creates a gypsy-inspired, dance-like mood. It is hypnotic and trance-like in its cumulative effect, with gradually accelerating tempos. The middle section provides a contrasting darker mood, slower tempo, and an abundance of virtuosic double-stops for the violist. The recap presents only some of the themes and in different order, but the ending presents some new material and drives to a bacchanalian finish.

The order of moods is reversed in the second movement, where three gentle yet passionate themes are presented in succession. The opening theme is where the entire concerto began - both it and its immediate answer were written together on the night the piece was begun. The poignancy of the opening themes gives way to the more animated feel of an intense, dramatic tango. The slow pulse still is prevalent but heavily subdivided. Eventually, the two opening themes are recapped, slightly ornamented, and presented in reverse order. Consequently, the movement ends with the same starkly simple and romantic material with which it began.

From the outset, the third movement was intended to be big and challenging - a fiery conclusion to the entire work. It has an upper pitch range comparable to many violin pieces, but it also features the viola’s deeply rich lower register. The movement puts aside the tradition of mournful viola music. However, there is a slow middle section, presented almost entirely in double stops, that plumbs these emotional depths while yet providing a virtuosic challenge of a different nature to the performer. The outer sections are driving and energetic, culminating in an even more driving finale, marked "Joyfully, Vibrantly".