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Jörg Widmann, Viola Concerto

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2022–23 subscription concert "An Alpine Symphony."

Jorg Widmann at his desk_edited_edited.jpg

Forget everything you think you know about the concerto. Centuries of works by nearly every major composer from Vivaldi to Beethoven to John Adams have led you to believe that works for solo instruments and orchestra possess certain fundamental truths. That a soloist can't roam around the stage during the performance. Or loudly tune their instrument while the orchestra swells with sound around them. Or scream during an exceptionally difficult passage.


Yes, be prepared to forget everything you think you know about the concerto. Because all of those things happen — and so much more — in Jörg Widmann's fascinating Viola Concerto.


As a composer, clarinetist, and conductor, Widmann leads a career that's more associated with the composer-virtuosos of the 18th and 19th centuries like Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Liszt. But it's through that breadth of musical experience — gained through decades of training, teaching, and performances — that Widmann has internalized 300 years of Austro-German classical music. He studied clarinet with Gerhard Starke and composition with Wolfgang Rihm and Hans Werner Henze in Munich, taught clarinet and composition in Freiburg, and was named the first resident composer in the storied history of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which counts Mendelssohn among its illustrious roster of former music directors. 


So how does a composer like Widmann, so steeped in classical music's traditions, take such a sharp left turn in his own work? As they say, you have to know all the rules before you can break them. 


But rejecting these traditions has never been Widmann's goal. Instead, he looks at them more like a treasure chest of styles and forms that can be reconfigured and born anew in a contemporary musical world where every type of conceivable sound is fair game — from simple scales and tonal harmonies to snarling dissonances, innovative instrumental colors, and breathtaking use of silence. For Widmann, his work is about giving the listener opportunities to look both forward and back in musical time:


"Somebody who attends [my] concerts, I think, will experience something about my musical language, about how I see our time, but also how I see music of the past. I am really trying to combine the Classical, Romantic, and Baroque eras with my music. It's always important to combine two things that, at first glance, don't belong together."


That mashup of old and new is evident across Widmann's body of work, but especially in the concertos. His piano concerto, Trauermarsch (Funeral March), is inspired by the opening movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, while a work for cello and orchestra, Dunkle Saiten (Dark Strings), references Schumann's Cello Concerto. But it's a series of works under the title of Labyrinth, directly inspired by Greek myth, in which the initial seeds for his Viola Concerto were sown.


While composing the first of his Labyrinth pieces in 2005, Widmann became obsessed with similarities between the mythological maze and the complex journey of composition, how the labyrinth's intricately designed pathways and dead-ends mirrored the creative process. Seeing how the labyrinth could be conquered by taking turns based on instinct, circling back when they don't lead anywhere, and starting fresh led to Widmann's top-down re-examination of orchestral forms like the concerto  — and the many possibilities that have gone unexplored.


Written in 2015 for the French violist Antoine Tamestit, the soloist in this week's Cleveland Orchestra concerts, Widmann's concerto breaks new ground not in its narrative scope — unlike many of his earlier concertos, this work uses a formal title (Viola Concerto) instead of a descriptive one (Trauermarsch) — but in its inventive orchestration, the atypical relationship between soloist and orchestra, and the injection of theatrical visual elements. The result is that the viola doesn't serve only as a soloist, but as a surrogate for the composer, moving through a series of six points on the stage in a mercurial quest to discover its singular voice. 


Widmann's orchestra is massive, though it's rare that all instruments on stage play as a whole. Rather, the focus is on individual debates Tamestit has with different instrumental groups during his travels — among them a timid first exchange with a pair of bongos, futile attempts to match the plucked sounds of harps and prepared piano, an ethereal exchange of whispered harmonics against the trembling roar of eight double basses, and a vicious argument with the tuba. In fact, it's only in the concerto's final section — a sweeping aria for soloist and orchestral strings — where Tamestit isn't in opposition to the music of his fellow musicians, but is cradled by them.


With each of these animated conversations, new aspects of the viola's voice begin to emerge. Beginning with the quiet sound of drumming, Tamestit taps his fingertips against the instrument's chin rest and fingerboard to produce sound, but a complete absence of musical tones. An extensive period of plucked notes (pizzicato) is prompted by a dry snap in the orchestral strings and an icy flutter in the flutes, kicking off a six-minute voyage in which the Tamestit's plucking becomes more confident, including an enchanting passage in which heavy, trembling vibrato — a rapid, expressive bending of pitch — allows the viola to imitate the percussive parlance of a sitar.


About a third of the concerto passes in this pizzicato fashion before a majestic fanfare builds in the brass as Tamestit discovers a new tool for his journey: the bow! Instructed in the score to "slowly raise the bow, as if in a ritual act," he holds it aloft with the pride of King Arthur extracting Excalibur from the stone. As the orchestra seethes with growing intensity, Tamestit travels throughout the orchestra loudly tuning the viola's open strings until the deep, burnished sound of the lowest C string fades into a cavernous silence.


Now equipped with the bow, the viola's journey takes a new course. Melodies move swiftly, carried almost by the sheer will of imagination, through melodic arabesques, moments of short-lived triumph and pathos, and a frenetic dance that grows fiendishly difficult for Tamestit — its lines running in circles before climbing through the extreme peak of the instrument's register until there's nowhere left to go. He has no choice but to let forth a primal scream of physical, mental, and creative frustration, as if to ask: "Why did I follow this path? When will the terror of this journey end?"


But Widmann's hero refuses to relent. Bruised and deflated, Tamestit ultimately finds peace not in attempting to triumph over the sounds around him, but in diving deep within to nurture his weary emotional state. Having reached his final position on the stage — the concerto soloist's traditional location next to the conductor — Tamestit begins an aria of profound longing, the song of a wounded soul weary of the long journey it's experienced. With newfound freedom and abandon, Tamestit deftly glides up and down the full range of the viola's voice as he sings, like an acrobat soaring and tumbling high above its audience.


After relishing in a passage, albeit brief, of perfect unison with the concertmaster, our hero is brought back to earth. Tamestit's concluding phrase descends through the viola's register to rest once again on its lowest open string. But the final destination hasn't been reached. He slowly twists a tuning peg to release the C string's tension, so that the tone sinks even further — becoming a hollow, husky groan that fades into an all-consuming silence.


Was this wistful swan song the terminus Widmann imagined for his violist hero when the work began? Maybe, maybe not. But does it even matter? The work is a thrilling journey of revelations, setbacks, crises of faith, and self-discovery — one that attempts to show us the simultaneous wonder and terror composers feel as they strive to assemble and shape sounds into meaningful musical expression.

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