A New Violin Concerto As Cosmic Dialogue, Search For Perspective

Vadim Gluzman performed the world premiere of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Violin Concerto with the Oregon Symphony under music director David Danzmayr. (Photo courtesy of the Oregon Symphony Association)

PORTLAND — Before the Oregon Symphony embarked on Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Violin Concerto No. 3 on Jan. 28, music director David Danzmayr announced from the stage that the performance would be the world premiere. That’s because the concerto, completed by the Estonian composer in 2020, had originally been scheduled for the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, but the pandemic altered those plans. So the Oregon Symphony, which sandwiched the piece between Sibelius’ Finlandia and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, got the honors.

Well known in Europe, Tüür, 63, has written 10 symphonies, numerous concertos, chamber music pieces, solo instrumental works, choral pieces, and the opera Wallenberg, which was first performed at Opernhaus Dortmund in 2001. The Berlin Philharmonic under Paavo Järvi premiered his Flute Concerto, Lux Stellarum, earlier in January.

Tüür’s Violin Concerto No. 3, Kõnelused Tundmatuga (Conversations with the Unknown), was co-commissioned by the Oregon Symphony, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. It was written specifically for the Israeli virtuoso Vadim Gluzman, who was born in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union and grew up in Latvia.

Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür, with Oregon Symphony music director David Danzmayr, spoke to the audience before the premiere of his Violin Concerto No. 3. (OSA

In his introductory remarks, Tüür said that the violin concerto came about because Gluzman had asked him for one. Tüür described its music as “an individual trying to find an inner harmony with his other self.” According to his description in the program notes, the title “refers to different possible conversations with an ‘other self’: an inner voice (conscience), God (in the most abstract meaning), or with someone you do not know but wish to have as a close friend.”

The somewhat esoteric message of Kõnelused Tundmatuga emphasized an exchange between the soloist (representing the individual) and the orchestra (symbolizing a tumbler of ideas, emotions, cultural bric-a-brac, etc.) over the course of three movements (slow-fast-slow). Sections of the orchestra often created sonic collages that featured a light electronic buzz or slightly distorted whirls even though no electronic instruments were used. They were perhaps influenced by Tüür’s youth, when he played in a rock band before pursuing a career as a composer.

In reaction to a wash of sound that often began with colorful tones from the marimba, vibraphone, piano, harp, and glockenspiel, Gluzman carefully etched lines that seemed to search and probe. His playing was primarily confined to the upper register of his Stradivarius. Sometimes the orchestra echoed a passage that Gluzman played or vice versa. In one of his cadenzas, Gluzman created an eerie series of semitones that were genuinely spooky.

Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür at intermission. (Photo by James Bash)

The piece generated an atmosphere of expansion and contraction that went back and forth many times. Gluzman brought it all to a close with silken, ethereal phrases that whispered heavenward as if to suggest that the individual had finally met the divine.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony received an incisive and emotionally rewarding performance. Danzmayr elicited outstanding contributions, starting right out of the gate with the low, woody clarinets in the gloomy “Fate theme.” Principal horn Jeff Garza filled the hall with the sorrowful yet lovely solo in the second movement. The waltz in the third movement glided along with grace and elegance. When the “Fate theme” re-emerged in the last movement, the orchestra transitioned to happy, joyful strains that became more prominent, topping off the symphony with an exuberant finale. (Gluzman, by the way, joined the second violins and seemed to thoroughly enjoy playing the piece.)

Sibelius’ Finlandia, which began the concert, is an evergreen, but it has taken on a refreshed significance because of Russia’s war with Ukraine. With a menacing flare, the brass fired the opening salvos of Finlandia, depicting the brutish Russian oppression that ruled Finland from 1809-1917. The gloom was countered with rousing and defiant volleys from the orchestra and then a hymn-like tune that transcended the turmoil with purity and optimism. The orchestra under Danzmayer delivered the feeling of hopefulness with gusto, and that put the audience in good spirits.