Gary Lewis substitutes for Michael Butterman with violinist Rachel Barton Pine
By Peter Alexander Feb. 10 at 9:55 p.m.
Billy Childs might think his new Violin Concerto is under a curse.
Commissioned by several groups including the Boulder Philharmonic, it was twice scheduled to premiere at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, in 2020 and 2021, and it was twice postponed by COVID. It will finally have its premiere Saturday by the Boulder Philharmonic with violinist Rachel Barton Pine, for whom it was written (7:30 p.m. Feb. 12 in Macky Auditorium).
But Boulder Phil music director Michael Butterman is unable to travel to Colorado, so prof. Gary Lewis of the CU College of Music has stepped in at the last minute to conduct the premiere. And it will finally make its way to the Grant Park Festival in the coming summer—hopefully.
Childs’s brand new Concerto shares the program with a very familiar piece, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. Termed “the apotheosis of the dance” by Richard Wagner, the Seventh has been one of the most performed of all Beethoven’s symphonies, standing at No. 3 on the list of orchestral works performed at Carnegie Hall. It’s standing in Boulder may not be quite third, but it certainly has been performed here several times in the last few years.
Pine appeared with the Boulder Phil once before, in 2015, when she played the Berg Violin Concerto. A musician of wide ranging interests, she has performed heavy metal as well as classical music, and created a foundation to promote the music of Black composers from the 18th to the 21st centuries.
The concerto, Childs’s Violin Concerto No. 2, is not the first piece he has written for Pine. They met through his work as a board member of Chamber Music America, and he wrote his Four Portraits for solo violin, modeled on the Bach D-minor Partita for solo violin, for her in 2017. That was followed by Incident on Larpenteur Avenue for violin and piano, and now the concerto.
“The pieces have been getting exponentially bigger,” Childs says. “Solo violin, then piano and violin, and then all of a sudden a quantum leap into orchestra and violin.” And what’s next?
“I would love to write something for her and my jazz chamber ensemble,” he says.
Every bit as much as Pine, Childs is a musician of diverse interests. A jazz pianist who has played with Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis, he has also written concert music in the classical tradition, including chamber and orchestral pieces. Speaking of his musical training, he says “Jazz was the strongest (influence), but there was no one that I was tethered to.”
Growing up he heard Bach and Handel at home, but also Nat “King” Cole. This was in the ‘70s, so he also heard the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Supremes. His older sisters introduced him to Bob Dylan, Laura Nyro, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. In school he became acquainted with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Yes. “My musical influences were all over the map,” he says.
“I started thinking, what music do I like that dramatically moves me? That’s all I care about. I don’t care about the genre.”
He approaches each piece he writes in terms of the expressive capabilities of the instruments. “I am concerned with the story of each piece, the dramatic implications of a piece, what instruments I’m writing for and how those instruments express the drama of the piece,” he says.
“There are certain thing that an orchestra does that no other ensemble does, so you listen to the masters of that genre. You check out what they did—people like Ravel, Bartók, Samuel Barber.”
In terms of musical style, “my aim had always been to marry, or create a hybrid form of Western European classical music and American classical music—jazz—but do that on an organic level,” he says. But don’t listen for specific jazz influences in the concerto. “If you hear Ellington, it’s because you want to,” he says.
”I’m reluctant to describe the music, because that’s impossible. But it’s in the style of the mid-20th century composers. I took a cue from that language. Since it’s orchestra, I tried to do what the great orchestrators do—the Ravels, the Barbers, Stravinsky. How they used the orchestra—I tried to do that.”
The shape of the concerto was partly determined by the fact that Childs wrote the movements in reverse order. “I wrote the last movement first, and the first movement last,” he says. “I don’t know why that happened, I guess because the last movement is a very exciting and angular and difficult movement.
“That was the first thing that I wrote during 2019 and 2020. Especially during 2020 when COVID hit, things were just out of our control. And then I kind of calmed down. There’s a lyricism in all the movements, but the second movement is elegiac, and the first one is celebratory.”
So two years after the planned premiere, is the Concerto really finished? Well, not exactly. “I really like what I wrote, but I know that I will be going in there (to the performance) with a notepad, changing a lot of stuff,” Childs says.
“You never really know until you actually hear it.”
# # # # #
“Beethoven and Billy Childs”
Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Gary Lewis, guest conductor
With Rachel Barton Pine, violin
- Billy Childs: Violin Concerto No. 2 (World premiere, co-commission)
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12