Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Violins, in consort

Messiah is a modern miracle, maybe the greatest artwork in all of Western history. Give Handel a full year to write it, then perhaps it becomes merely one of the greatest works of all time. But when one takes into account that the composer took just twenty four days to write it . . . it staggers the imagination. Word has it that the composer didn't even have time to eat, the notes were coming out of him so fast. (Handel was overheard saying that he felt like God's vessel, putting to paper every note that had been handed to him.)

We are approaching that time of year when we get to hear Messiah again. (Richard Coffey will conduct CONCORA and the Hartford Symphony on December 14 and 15.) Most in the audience will wait with great anticipation for the Hallelujah chorus. But near the end, in the final Amen, there is a magical moment that often goes unnoticed.

In the midst of a grand fugue for all forces, the violins are suddenly alone, playing quietly in unison. After what feels like an eternity, more violins join in, ostensibly to start the fugue all over again (!), only to be resoundingly cut off by chorus and orchestra. Blissfully unaware, violins return once more, and again they are thwarted. The réjouissance must go on.

Near the end of Harmonia Mundi, a brilliant concerto for violin and orchestra by Stephen Gryc, violins gradually emerge, speaking as one. If Handel's violins provide blessed relief, Gryc's bring momentary release to the prevailing orchestral quietude. The tension is enormous, and the violins gently urge it to stop. Their cry is to no avail, and the silence returns.

More than Messiah, Gryc's model may have been Sibelius's Second Symphony, in which violins begin in unison on the same pitch. But for Sibelius, the violins are a dorian question, not to be answered until much later by the brass, in full harmony. This is testament to the composer's creative genius, reintroducing the opening theme so that it sounds new. For Sibelius, there is no homecoming, only an unending search.

Handel, Sibelius and Gryc share an essential understanding: as the largest section in the ensemble, violins, singing as one, bring a collective power unequaled by any other instrument of the orchestra.

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