Interview with Daniel Hope: Four Seasons, For Seasons

March 2, 2017, 11:36 AM · Violinist Daniel Hope still vividly remembers the first time he heard Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" as a child: "I'd ever heard anything like it, and it just totally blew me away."

How is it that this piece, which so many of us encounter these days as "background music," had such a profound effect on the young Hope?

One reason might be the setting: Yehudi Menuhin's summer festival in the Swiss mountain town of Gstaad, in the 1970's. Menuhin, who would later become a mentor and personal friend to Hope, was performing live with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra.

For a moment there, Hope thought he was hearing birds from the stage.

"When 'Spring' starts, you have that first entry with the violins passing birdsong between each other," Hope told me during an interview last month while he was in Los Angeles. "The fact that a violin was able to sing like a bird, that was probably the first thing that astonished me." And then there was Menuhin. "Menuhin's sound on his del Gesù was so warm and intense, plus, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, they were absolutely amazing. The way that they threw themselves into the performance: the intensity of the storm, or the dog barking, or all the images that Vivaldi conjures up -- it planted the seed in my head."

That seed has been germinating for a very long time, and at long last it has grown into Hope's newest project, For Seasons.

Daniel Hope
Daniel Hope.

"This is something that has been around in my head for more than 25 years," he said. "I even had a concept which was called 'For Seasons,' which I sent to a whole load of record companies and I still have the rejection letters from way back then. So it's taken a long time to get this made!"

In this recording, Hope performs Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the very same orchestra he heard so many years ago, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, of which Hope is now the Music Director. Along with the Vivaldi, Hope has chosen 12 broadly ranging works to represent each of the 12 months of the year.

"Plus, I commissioned 12 painters to give me 12 paintings corresponding to either the month or the piece," he said.

Is Hope obsessed with "The Four Seasons"? Maybe a little bit.

"I started playing that piece in public when I was nine or 10, then every year since, several times a year," he said. By now he's given nearly 1,000 performances of "The Four Seasons."

"Then about four or five years ago, I had the chance to make an album called Vivaldi Recomposed by Max Richter, which was a new look at Vivaldi's Four Seasons," Hope said. "That gave me the chance to revisit the original with totally new eyes and ears." From that moment on, he was itching to record it.

"Then in September I became music director of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra," he said. "I found myself standing in front of them, and from the first note we played, we were on such the same wavelength that the Vivaldi just felt so natural. And after the first two or three concerts with the piece, we all just said, 'We have to record this.' So that's when we went in the studio and did it."

Of course, Hope's version of "The Four Seasons" with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra is quite a bit different from the one he heard so many years ago, with the same orchestra and Menuhin.

"I've had 40 years of listening to the piece, playing it, studying it, playing it with different people," Hope said. "Neither Yehudi Menuhin nor Zakhar Bron, my main teacher, were particularly 'historically informed' in their approach. But there are beautiful things in the way they played, so all of that has gone into it. I would say (this recording is) not exactly a 'Baroque' version, but it certainly has that "historically informed' aspect to it. I picked that up through working with people like Christopher Hogwood and Roger Norrington as well as many other influences that have changed my interpretation over the years."

When it came to what to pair with Vivaldi's famous concerto, "I decided to give it a 21st-century response, a climatic response to 'The Four Seasons.' So I chose 12 pieces, each one connected to a month." The connections are either direct, or based on things like a link to a historical event that happened in that particular month. Here's what he wound up with:

January: "Ambre" by Nils Frahm
February: Jean-Philippe Rameau: Danse des Sauvage
March: “Spring 1” by Max Richter
April: "Avril 14th" by Aphex Twin
May: "Amazing Grace"
June: "June" from The Seasons by Tchaikovsky
July: "Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen" from Schumann’s Dichterliebe
August: "Les doutes d’août" by Chilly Gonzales
September: "September Song" by Kurt Weill
October: Johann Melchior Molter: Aria II
November: Johann Sebastian Bach: “Bete aber auch dabei”
December: "Wintermezzo" by Chilly Gonzales

The booklet that goes with this is its own little work of art, with each month's painting paired on a page with Hope's thoughts about that month's music.

"I've always been fascinated by painters and the way they respond to music," Hope said. "I've done projects that involve live-painting with music, onstage. So in the booklet, each of the images is published in its entirety, with a link to see it online. It's a way of taking that idea of the seasons further and looking at the way people respond to the seasons." Some of the paintings were chosen from that artist's previous works and others were painted especially for the album.

Did the paintings change Hope's view of any of this music?

"I have to say that every time when I look at the painting while listening to the track, I hear different things in the music -- and I see different things in the painting," Hope said. "It's fascinating, how it arrests your subconscious in a totally different way."

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