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Samuel Thompson

Revisiting Katrina: Theodore Wiprud's Violin Concerto 'Katrina'

August 31, 2013 at 3:17 AM

August 29, 2013 marks the eighth anniversary of the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Buras-Triumph, Louisiana, causing 53 different levee breaches in greater New Orleans - which submerged eighty percent of the city - and devastated the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, making Katrina the most destructive and costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. Hurricane Katrina irrevocably changed the lives of millions of people - myself included.

As with the numerous crises that we have witnessed throughout history, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath served as a catalyst for many artistic projects and direct responses from those directly affected, the countless number of people for whom the Gulf South region is a dear place, and people working in social justice throughout the world. Works that were generated in response to this storm range from trumpeter Terence Blanchard's A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina and Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts to very powerful works for the stage including UPROOTED: The Katrina Project (a collaboration between twelve Gulf Coast artists who are all members of Alternate ROOTS) and Ameriville (written and performed by the New York-based national ensemble theatre company UNIVERSES).

In the classical music world, the responses to Hurricane Katrina have been equally stirring, including both the New York Philharmonic's hosting a benefit concert that included members of the Louisiana Philharmonic and Ted Hearne's Katrina Ballads, a work that has remained present on concert stages nationwide since its 2007 premiere. As years have passed, however, one would think that the Gulf South had receded from the minds and hearts of the world. Fortunately, that is not the case.

In October 2011, violinist Ittai Shapira premiered Theodore Wiprud’s Violin Concerto (‘Katrina’) with Lucas Richman and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. (The work was recorded in 2012, as part of an album called American Violin Concertos.)

Violinist Ittai Shapira
Violinist Ittai Shapira

Like John Corigliano and many other composers who have been either inspired or affected by world events, Mr. Wiprud found himself thinking of the Gulf Coast as began composing his concerto: “My violin concerto (Katrina) reflects on the devastation the storm and flood wrought on the musical life of the whole Delta, the cradle of so much American music.” Dedicated to all musicians displaced by the storm, Wiprud’s three-movement concerto (“Le Bon Temps”, “Acadiana”, and “Fly Away”) can very distinctly be categorized as “American”: each movement pays homage to the Gulf Coast region through the inclusion of elements of jazz, blues and Cajun music.

The programmatic element is present in Wiprud’s concerto from the opening: the violin first appears playing very angular chords and a lyrical yet syncopated melody, with the rhythmic intensity of those opening chords continuing through the movement in tandem with an orchestral landscape in which jazz elements are beautifully presented while also containing a continuously escalating sense of foreboding.

The frenetic pace of this movement ends with a structural and musical collapse reminiscent of that captured in Ravel’s La Valse, as the soloist in Wiprud's concerto is engulfed by ever-growing and frantic waves of sound.

It is in the second and third movements of this concerto that we see and hear Mr. Wiprud at his most thoughtful: in his own words the second movement, Titled “Acadiana” (the name given to the region of Louisiana consisting of twenty-two parishes stretching from just West of New Orleans to the Texas border), "channels elder spirits of the Delta that have seen so many disasters." Based on the Acadian tune ‘Disez Goodbye à Votre Mère’’, the soloist serves as ancient witness, playing fragments of the folk song which are interrupted by brilliant orchestration recalling the “twin fiddling” of Cajun music – but all evoking the recollection that comes with great loss and grave tragedy.

The third movement, a "free fantasy on the jazz funeral standard 'I'll Fly Away' ", opens with a spacious clarinet solo leading into a woodwind chorale reminiscent of Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. After a brief interlude during which the violin is heard in similar spacious commentary, a manic series of variations on the tune appears. In his notes, Wiprud states that in this moment the violin is cast as "one flying away to find new life elsewhere, with all the emotions that entails", referencing the fact that tens of thousands of people - including musicians - were of course forced to flee the city.

Wiprud's commentary on his choice of material for the last movement of his concerto is more than fitting: the act of leaving any place to start a new life is an act always accompanied by a huge range of emotions, and one is made evident of the emotional realities upon listening to both the final movement of the concerto and the work in its entirety.

In the notes to his Symphony No. 1, composer John Corigliano shares that many symphonists have found inspiration from important life events, and places himself in that continuum by chronicling how he was affected by seeing the AIDS Memorial Quilt: “A few years ago I was extremely moved when I first saw ‘The Quilt,’ an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each memorializing a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and constructed by his or her loved ones. This made me want to memorialize in music those I have lost, and reflect on those I am losing.”

As Mr. Corigliano's symphony has remained a staple in concert halls throughout the United States, Wiprud's Violin Concerto is worthy of a permanent place on the concert stage as it is truly an American work both in content and inspiration.


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