ORLANDO – For a violin concerto titled Sanctuary, inspired by research on the historical use of that word in the United States, composer Lisa Bielawa defied the usual expectations one might have had if its title suggested notions of sanctity and refuge. The world premiere of the work took place on Jan. 15 by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra under music director Eric Jacobsen with soloist Jennifer Koh at this year’s “Resonate” performance, a new concert format that the Philharmonic is presenting at The Plaza Live – a onetime cinema that the Philharmonic has made its permanent home since 2013. Part of what “Resonate” tries to accomplish is to bring the audience closer to the music and musicians; the stage was pulled down closer to the front seats and a dozen or so seats were arranged directly behind the musicians, for those open to trying a new perspective.
Sanctuary, for violin and orchestra, was co-commissioned by the Orlando Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and Carnegie Hall. It was Bielawa’s second world premiere collaboration with Jacobsen and the Philharmonic, after 2016’s Drama/Self-Pity.
The word sanctuary “carries a sense of the inviolable,” writes the composer in her program notes, “it serves to set something apart as sacred, to sanctify. It protects from influence and preserves the purity of things and ideas.” If the new concerto – part of Bielawa’s Who Is America orchestral trilogy, and of Koh’s multi-season commissioning project “The New American Concerto” – seemed irresolute in its overall effect, its building blocks and intricate design still offered much to savor at the premiere, and augured well for the work’s future (also, it is to be hoped, in a recording).
In July of 2018, Bielawa was the William Randolph Hearst Artist Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts, where the largest collection of pre-1876 American literature and all kinds of popular printed material, including pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers, can be found. For the 28 minute-long concerto, as for her recently recorded Sanctuary Songs, Bielawa pored over 18th and 19th century literature at the AAS, in search for different instances of this powerful yet elusive word, to devise a composition that imagines a metaphoric ascension toward the realm of the sanctuary.
After opening remarks by composer and conductor, the ensemble took on the somber mood of Sanctuary. Delicate plucking from the harp over murmurings from brass and woodwind sets the spooky atmosphere and feeling of restlessness of the first movement, “Speak.” Following this short establishing passage, the soloist opens in hushed arpeggios that gradually evolve into a somewhat elusive, drawn-out melody. In some of her music, Bielawa uses repetitive bass figures and pedal tones; for “Speak,” she calls for a continuous rumble from foggy horns, which adds texture to her otherwise sparse orchestration. The arpeggiated opening motive returns often and is echoed by the woodwinds. This slowly builds up to a strident passage in which the soloist attacks with sharp staccato thrusts over a blurry sphere of brass.
The second movement, “Threshold,” takes its literary inspiration partly from a contemporary biography of President Lincoln. In it, according to the composer’s notes, a woman who has met Lincoln is quoted as saying “I gazed at him through tears, and felt I had stepped upon the threshold of a sanctuary too sacred for human feet.” The flow of the piece is uninterrupted from the first movement, until the eeriness of the sound shifts to a more strongly felt triple rhythm, over which the soloist spins out material more fluently, with echoing support from the 28-piece ensemble. Bielawa reshuffles the famous B-A-C-H motif (B-flat, A, C, B) for the basis of the harmony.
For the cadenza, Bielawa had in mind Uncle Tom’s Cabin, according to her notes; a highlight of the concerto, it succeeds in its intent to evoke a transition from “struggle and distress to a place of release.” Koh accomplished the singsong lilt of the cadenza, particularly through carefully phrased soft-loud alternations in dynamics. But Bielawa’s score never abandons the dissonant backbone of her general harmonic design. In the cadenza, she carries it over through technically demanding passages that ask the soloist to hold out a drone note in the violin while simultaneously developing melodic lines. Koh negotiated this with impressive dexterity. When the woodwinds return, the soloist continues to whisper the arpeggiated figure, imitated in turn by the wispy sound of strings playing above the bridge.
The closing movement, “Breathe,” perhaps the least effective, is an homage to the third movement of Bach’s A-minor violin concerto. It evokes the ornamentation of the Baroque period and emphasizes its recurring bass line with raucous cellos and basses throughout. Some of the execution, however, came out a little rough around the edges in the strings. Though “Breathe” works well thematically, in its aim to celebrate not only Bach but music itself as a sanctuary, I’m not sure it coheres convincingly with the hazy material that precedes it, which seems to inhabit a different world. On first hearing, Sanctuary often felt sparse, even cold, with periodic pools of not quite coherent activity. At the end, I was left longing for the sacred safety of the title, the Bach finale notwithstanding. “The word sanctuary keeps something or someone in,” writes Bielawa in the notes, “and also keeps something or someone out.” I cannot think of a more succinct description for her new piece; yet I anticipate a recording with open ears.
To round off the first half of the program, Jacobsen and the Philharmonic offered an energetic reading of Mozart’s Symphony No. 36, Linz. The conductor accomplished a much clearer balance in the strings, with a hefty coalescent sound supported by the boom of the timpani and immaculate work by the woodwind principals. After intermission, a set of chamber music took place at the Palmer Room next door, a kind of ballroom with tables in a gala-like arrangement. Bielawa joined Koh to sing her new Sanctuary Songs; as a singer, Bielawa, 51, has a phenomenal sense of pitch, which she has famously lent to the Philip Glass Ensemble for more than half her life.
Her vocals managed to remain lyrical even in difficult intervals of wide leaps. For the third song, “My Marvelous Wall,” Koh introduced the recurring “make my marvelous wall so thick” theme with a percussive pattern, quickly picked up by the vocalist. Toward the end, Bielawa signaled the audience to sing this line incessantly, while she continued to elaborate over it. [Hear this movement below.]
The performance as a duo was an immersive experience and a glimpse into the collaboration between the two artists, who revealed, among other things, that the concerto had undergone revisions up until the night before. The set also included Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, with Koh and Jacobsen (on cello), and a clarion Nikolay Blagov on clarinet.
Bielawa has also recently completed Voters’ Litany, for chorus, timpani, organ, and strings, which will have its premiere at Washington National Cathedral on March 22, 2020. Commissioned by the Cathedral Choral Society, the piece honors the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, which allowed women in the United States to vote.