Does America have its own school of composition, a lineage of classically-trained composers?
Certainly, it has many. But without evening knowing it, Anne Akiko Meyers seems to have stumbled upon one with a particular affinity for violin writing, when putting together her latest album, The American Masters. The album features works by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), John Corigliano (b. 1938) and Mason Bates (b. 1977).
As John Corigliano writes in the program notes, "Both composers have shared the intimate quality of mentorship with me -- Samuel Barber was my mentor, and I was Mason Bates' mentor....Three generations of friendship and shared ideas are captured in this recording."
Did Anne plan it this way? Did she know about their connection, a lineage in itself?
"No! This was a total coincidence," Anne told me, speaking over the phone last month from Austin, where she lives with her husband and two small children (when she is not on tour!). "It was just fate. It was amazing how it all worked out, with the lullaby being created in 2010 and Mason's (Violin Concerto) in 2012. We recorded in 2013, and that's when it all came together."
That album, recorded with London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin, features the easy-to-love Violin Concerto by Barber, as well as the two new works Anne described: a work that Anne's husband commissioned Corigliano to write for the birth of their first child, "Lullaby for Natalie," (2010) and the CD premiere of Mason Bates' "Violin Concerto," (2012). The Bates concerto takes its inspiration from a dinosaur-bird hybrid called the Archaeopteryx with both earthbound and airborne themes that sometimes have a modern "electronica" feel, but using all acoustic instruments and tonal language.
In all, it's been a good year for Anne, who finished 2014 as the top selling instrumentalist on Billboard, following the success of this album as well as The Four Seasons (2014) and Air: The Bach Album (2013).
We spoke about Anne's long history with the Barber Concerto, about her daughter's love for the lullaby that was composed for her by Corigliano, and about what it's like to portray the soaring, "sexy dinosaur" in Bates' Violin Concerto.
Anne: In this album, I was trying to explore the past, with Samuel Barber; the present, with John Corigliano; and the future, with Mason Bates. The Barber Concerto is head and shoulders, the most popular American violin concerto performed today.
Laurie: Do you remember the very first time you heard the Barber, and how you felt?
Anne: I do. When I was about 12 years old, another student was working on it with my teacher at the time, Alice Schoenfeld in California. I wanted to play it so much, but I got stuck with Mozart and Mendelssohn, and I had to wait until I got to Juilliard to sink my teeth into it! When I was 18, I programmed it as my debut CD work, along with the Bruch Concerto. The Barber really wasn't performed much then, as it is today. Last year (2014) was the 75th year of its creation.
The music is just so gorgeous, and then there's the whole controversy of the last movement.
Laurie: It's so fast and different from the first two movements; people sometimes say that it doesn't go with them.
Anne: I'm a fan of mixing it up; I'm so glad that Barber decided to stick to his guns and keep the third movement the way it is. It's really challenging to play.
The concerto has so much muscle in it. It's so Romantic, and the second movement reminds me of the Adagio for Strings, which he wrote a year prior to the Violin Concerto, interestingly enough.
I think I've performed the Barber the most, of any concerto in my repertoire. To record it on the Vieuxtemps (Guarneri del Gesù) was a dream for me because of the color palette that's available on that violin. The G string is so rich, like a cello. Being able to soar and sing in that second movement, with that incredible melody, was just spine-tingling. That's how I've always imagined hearing it, and to be able to play it and record it that way -- it was kind of full-circle for me.
Laurie: What violin did you use in that original recording, when you were 18?
Anne: I was playing on the Guadagnini for that recording.
Laurie: Not a bad fiddle!
Anne: Not at all! It's such a different performance, very fresh. But now, after living my life, it's greatly matured. I feel like I almost embody the Barber Violin Concerto now.
Laurie: Was it anything beyond the maturity of being in a different place in your life; did the new possibilities that were available with the "Vieuxtemps" cause you to play the piece differently?
Anne: Absolutely. It just opens up new doors, new possibilities within your mind and your heart that you didn't think were possible. It's always an exploration, and an experimentation. You think you're going to go in a straight line somewhere, then you realize, it's going to take me 50 light years to the left, and then to the right. It's amazing, how much more you're learning that way, instead of just going straight -- and what you think is the great goal.
Laurie: I understand that "Lullaby for Natalie" was written to celebrate the birth of your first daughter, Natalie.
Anne: Instead of jewelry, my husband thought it would be interesting to ask John to write a lullaby. It came as a big, big surprise gift for me -- I was really stunned that John agreed to do that. He didn't even know her name -- we didn't know her name! He had finished the lullaby, and then afterwards he put her name in the title. But I really hear her name in the motif throughout it all: "Lullaby, for Natalie...." (she sings)
Anne: Now Natalie is four, and she religiously plays the lullaby, all throughout the night. You will be injured if you even try to change the track of the CD -- it's on repeat from the time she goes to sleep until the time she wakes up. It's such a tremendous gift -- my husband's idea, and the fact that John agreed to work with such a different vehicle: a lullaby. So many people have attempted to write a lullaby, but few have been so successful. He originally wrote it for violin and piano, then he orchestrated it especially for the recording. Once I was in the studio, it completely came together, like it was always meant to be for violin and orchestra. Now I can't even imagine it any other way!
Laurie: What makes it a successful lullaby?
Anne: (John Corigliano's) writing is so beautiful. It tells a story, and I also hear her name throughout it. I love how you feel like you're descending into sleep, when (the musical line is) ascending. That's interesting to me, and how you can create something so lush and melodic -- in four minutes. It's a four-minute work, and that's a big struggle, to create something that's original in four minutes.
Laurie: The "Violin Concerto" by Mason Bates is completely new, and written for you. How did that come about?
Anne: I have been friends with for several years. Back in 2007, I asked him to re-write the cadenzas for the Beethoven Concerto. I have a history of that -- I asked Wynton (Marsalis) to write the cadenzas for the Mozart G major concerto. I love to have a contemporary, living composer's take on something that's incredibly traditional, and I was so curious to see what he would write. It's very much his signature. I took it on tour to the Netherlands, but at the time I planted this seed in his brain, of a violin concerto.
Bringing it to fruition was a long process. It became more serious after I sent an email to Leonard Slatkin and told him that Mason would be very interested in writing this concerto -- his first concerto for any instrument. That immediately helped get a co-commission with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and we premiered the concerto there in December of 2012.
It was a very 21st-century collaboration: we had many Skype sessions. He would be very frank with me: Does this work, or not, technically? And I would tell him: This just won't fly. Or: I am trying to be a contortionist, but that just will not work. There were many exchanges back and forth, but when I heard the midi that he sent me in the summer of 2012, I was blown away. I was so excited about what I heard. The premiere was so thrilling because it had gone through so many transformations and so many revisions already. Even from the time that I premiered it, it's been through many revisions. Even in the recording studio, in London, he wanted to change the ending, on the spot!
Anne: This was after performing it with Chicago Symphony, Richmond Symphony, Nashville, Detroit, everywhere! At this point I said, "Uh, um, no. It's so great, let's just keep it the way it is!" (Laughing) Thankfully, he felt the same way! It's just a really interesting process, to work with a young composer like Mason.
Laurie: How old is he?
Anne: He's 37. He's composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony. I read recently that he is the most-performed composer today, after John Adams.
Laurie: Why, do you think?
Anne: His music has a really interesting vibe and a story. Even the story of the Violin Concerto is one of a prehistoric, hybrid dinosaur bird that takes flight -- an Archaeopteryx. How do you come up with that idea? (she laughs)
Laurie: I see a lot of metaphor in that: the old music and the new music, and taking flight.
Anne: He wanted to have a duality of roles. There's the elegant, melodic, shimmeringly beautiful melody, but then at the same time there's this very rhythmic propulsion and real texture in the orchestra. The time signature changes almost every bar. He has mentioned that he finds the orchestra to be the world's largest synthesizer -- because of his background as a deejay. You really feel this kind of energy, this very quick-footed energy throughout the concerto. And then there are these incredibly lush, cinematic themes, played in the first movement and then repeated in the last movement. The second movement is very funny because he asked me to be this prehistoric creature, going through a muddy swamp, but he wants me to be incredibly sensuous -- a sexy dinosaur! Okay, I'll try that, why not?
Laurie: Is it playable, is anybody besides you going to be able to play this?
Anne: I am looking forward to hearing a violinist play it because it's a real tour de force; it's 30 minutes long and it has practically no break. It's sort of like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto: all strung together. Just when you think you can't take any more, he put this wicked cadenza at the end! By then you're just bringing everyone with you -- you're taking flight together with the orchestra, leaping off a canyon or leaping off a cliff, together. There are many exotic sounds throughout the concerto as well: the start, with the bass players slapping their basses - it sounds like godzilla-esque footsteps. There's an Oriental element in the second movement, as well.
Laurie: I'd love to hear it live, it sounds like a real experience, with the basses slapping...
Anne: Even in the recording session, Leonard (Slatkin) was saying, "...we need a little more 'hi-hat' there and a little more 'egg shaker' there..."
Laurie: "Egg shaker"! Sounds like he utilized every button on the synthesizer of the orchestra!
Anne: Without it including electronica, we sounded like electronica. In the last movement, the violin is spewing out so many notes, it almost sounds like computer code, spilling out of the violin. It's just fascinating, to be in his head and to have witnessed and collaborated with him throughout it all.
Laurie: To ask a leading question, it sounds like he was using all kinds of tricks, but you feel it was all in the service of something? I've certainly heard new pieces that did just sound like a pile of tricks.
Anne: It comes from an organic place for him. I think that this concerto is really one of the most important works that has been written in the last 50 years. Since the Barber concerto.
Laurie: Why do you think that?
Anne: It really speaks to audiences, it's highly accessible. It doesn't feel like, "This is new music, it's bitter and it tastes like kale, but I'm supposed to like it anyway." It's not that kind of music. It's music that is moving. It's contemporary, but purely acoustic. And the orchestra sounding like electronica, it's a very unique sound, all to Mason.
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