Saturday, May 30, 2015

Vasks' Distant Light (Violin Concerto)

Continuing my series of program notes:

Pēteris Vasks (born 1946)
Distant Light (Violin Concerto, 1996-97)

For  35 years now, the orchestral repertoire has been replenished by Eastern European and  Baltic composers. Latvian Pēteris Vasks became known in the West in the 1980s, and the prestigious German publisher Schott contracted him in 1990, the year before Latvian independence from the Soviet Union. Vasks was born on 16 April 1946. He studied double bass in Latvia and Lithuania and performed with important Latvian ensembles before turning to composition.

US radio presenter Daniel Stephen Johnson has said, ‘the rough outlines of Pēteris Vasks’ work and career might have a familiar ring to them: born in Soviet Latvia, Vasks endured government repression not only for his aesthetics but for his Christian faith, and emerged in the late 1970s with a pared-down compositional style heavily influenced by sacred themes.’ Endurance of the human spirit against the brutality of a monolithic oppressor might describe the Symphony No.1; later works sometimes put us in mind of the sacred music of Estonian Arvo Pärt, but the influence of earlier models, the Poles Lutosławski and Penderecki endures, particularly in moments of ‘indeterminacy’. Vasks’ later works are concerned with broader questions of the soul (he is the son of a clergyman). Some works are offered almost as artefacts of faith that we can escape the self-annihilation inherent in our hostile relationship with nature.

‘Distant Light’ was first performed by Gidon Kremer (its dedicatee) and the Kremerata Baltica at the 1997 Salzburg Festival. On a more prosaic level, this most ‘ethereal’ of violin concertos was inspired by reading Kremer’s autobiography, Childhood fragments. Vasks realised that he and Kremer had, unknowingly, gone to the same school. ‘“Distant Light” is nostalgia with a touch of tragedy. Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of light-years away.’

The work has its own unique single-movement structure. Beginning with atmospheric sounds (the soloist, for example, is asked to play an arpeggio of unspecified, ‘bird-like’, harmonics), the work soon introduces a broad, lyrical melody. The passion rises (and it is possible to talk of passion in Vasks’ music), and then the soloist launches into the first of three cadenzas that will define the structure. Out of glacially-moving lower strings, a new lyrical section emerges and builds toward a folk-like dance (with glints of waltz) leading to the second cadenza. After more dance-like music, silence - and then slow music resumes. The aspiring lyricism of this work is won against genuine intrusion of drama; there are what sound like apprehensions of alarm and then the most intense of the cadenzas takes place, before the brief, lumbering return of dance music. Recollection of the opening melodic material suggests that we may have been listening all this time to a highly-interesting arch structure; the return of atmospheric sounds supports this.

‘Nostalgia with a touch of tragedy’ partly explains the emotional appeal of this work. But it could also be explained by the prevailing singing style ‘through which I express my ideals’. Overall, Vasks asks listeners to hold out against the darkness and focus on the ‘distant light’.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2015

This note first appeared on 29 May 2015 in a concert program of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, one of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

James MacMillan's Viola Concerto, published 4 May 2015
Andrew Schultz's August Offensive, published 28 March 2015
Tan Dun's Nu Shu, published 15 March 2015
Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013
Wagner's Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene), published 31 July 2013
Liszt's Tasso, published 2 August 2013
Stravinsky's Les Noces orchestrated by Steven Stucky, published 8 August 2013
Liszt's Hamlet, published 15 August 2013
Scriabin's Piano Concerto, published 18 August 2013
Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich, published 27 August 2013
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier selections, published
Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, published 30 August 2013
'Traditional terms' - an interview with John Adams, published 5 Sep 2013
Berlioz' Waverley Overture, published 9 Sep 2013
Tchaikovsky's Fatum, published 17 Sep 2013
Wagner, arr. Henk de Vlieger A Ring Adventure, published 29 Sep 2013
Richard Strauss, Salome: Last scene, 11 Sep 2013
Shostakovich Ninth Symphony, published 13 Oct 2013
Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture, published 21 Oct 2013
Shchedrin's Carmen Ballet. published 25 Oct 2013

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