In the beginning, the composer created the music. There is no single more crucial act in the artistic cycle than the course of action that brings a work to life. Otherwise, musicians have nothing to play (or sing), dancers nothing to dance, actors nothing to act, audiences nothing to absorb. Performances wouldn’t exist.
The creative process is mysterious. It is a combination of inspiration and perspiration, as anyone who sets pen to paper — or fingers to typewriter or computer keyboard — will tell you.
Margaret Brouwer, who heads the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, faces a blank page every time she writes a piece. She has composed many chamber and orchestral works, including a clarinet concerto and a percussion concerto.
Her newest burst of artistic imagination is the Concerto for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, which was commissioned by CityMusic Cleveland, the ensemble that gives free concerts throughout Northeast Ohio, and music director James Gaffigan. The piece was written for the orchestra’s concertmaster, Michi Wiancko, who will be the soloist in this week’s world premiere.
Aside from inspiration and deadlines, an incentive in the creative process is money. Brouwer’s piece is being funded in part by the Arts and Culture as Economic Development Program of Cuyahoga County and commissioners Jimmy Dimora, Timothy Hagan and Peter Lawson Jones. Co-sponsors are Clurie Bennis, Dr. Victor Ceicys and Kathleen Browning Ceicys, the Elyria Musical Arts Society, Pamela and Scott Isquick and David Krakowski.
The composer spoke recently about the genesis and content of her violin concerto.
You were trained as a violinist and performed professionally. Did those experiences have resonance when you began the violin concerto?
I haven’t played in 13 or 14 years. I was actually a pretty good violinist. I loved playing the violin, but I liked composing better, which I was doing. At some point, it was so difficult to keep up my chops as a violinist at a level I was satisfied with, so I put it away for a year. And then I never got it out again.
What part did Michi Wiancko, for whom you wrote the piece, play in the concerto’s creation?
She was very much an inspiration in many ways. She has a beautiful, singing sound. Part of it is that she’s so musical. She puts so much of her personality into the sound. When I was writing melodies, I imagined how she would sound playing them.
Melodies? Many composers seem to go out of their way to avoid clearly discernible thematic material.
All of my music has melodies. I love melodies. They’re contemporary, of course. I always like beauty.
How do melodies factor into the violin concerto?
Usually, my music all evolves out of one motivic idea of some sort. In many respects, you can see how everything comes out of the first line Michi plays, even in the slow movement and last movement. Originally, the first and last movement were all one big movement. I hadn’t decided to make it three movements. I was aiming for a shorter piece.
Did CityMusic Cleveland specify a length?
I think we originally decided on something around 15 minutes, but I really got into writing this piece for the group and for Michi’s playing. So it became 20 minutes.
How did you go about expanding the piece?
The slow movement is something Michi wanted, to show her special interest in a cadenza for just violin and drums. I bring in a trip-hop beat, a British changing of the hip-hop beat, but very slow. I love to try different things in my music and include elements from different types of music. So this was an interesting challenge, which required some study on my part. So, we’ll see. I spent a lot of time on it.
As you said, the first movement, marked “Narrative,” introduces material that you employ later in the concerto. The violin part in this movement alternates between free, rhythmical writing and long, lyrical lines. How did you seek to achieve contrast in the slow movement, which is marked “Ballad”?
In the opening of the slow movement, it’s very, very simple. I like simple music sometimes, like Mozart. But it’s difficult to write simple music. I kept simplifying the accompaniment. But now I think it works. It’s the way it needs to be.
Last movements often focus on virtuosic display. Did Michi have input in this movement, which you’ve titled “Gypsy”?
I heard her at Lincoln Center with a group playing gypsy music. It’s real happy music that puts a smile on your face. That inspired the last movement. It shows off her technical abilities.
I suspect that you, like most skilled composers, find your music to be familiar once it reaches rehearsal and performance?
It pretty much sounds the way I think it sounds. In recent years, I haven’t been surprised by how it sounds. You think about how it sounds in your head.
Yet there must be moments of revelation while creating?
Composing is like putting together a puzzle. You get the ideas. They suddenly pop into your head. You have to throw a lot of them away. I think the original idea is a total surprise. I don’t know where it comes from. But how you turn that into a long piece requires a lot of training and experience and craft.
So how do you feel when the piece is done and ready to be handed over to the musicians?
The rehearsals and performances are always scary. It’s like you have this child you love already, and it’s the first day of school. You’re sending it out into the world.
Donald Rosenberg, Plain Dealer Music Critic
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