Unsuk Chin on the Violin Concerto She Swore She’d Never Write

The 21st century has been a strong one for violin concertos. Think Jennifer Higdon, whose neo-Romantic showpiece for Hilary Hahn won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. And Esa-Pekka Salonen, Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle, Jörg Widmann (twice) and John Adams (the same).

And also Unsuk Chin, whose exceptionally difficult, alluringly colorful 2001 concerto brought her prominence and won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2004.

That work, which still enchants, now has a successor, the Violin Concerto No. 2, “Scherben der Stille” (“Shards of Silence”). Despite the South Korean-born, Ligeti-taught Chin’s reluctance to write a second concerto for any instrument, she decided to make an exception for the violinist Leonidas Kavakos — who had met her but barely knew her music before she asked to write for him.

After having its premiere delayed by the pandemic, the work was unveiled by the London Symphony Orchestra in January. It arrived in the United States last week for performances with another of its commissioners, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which joins Kavakos to perform the work under Andris Nelsons at Carnegie Hall on Monday, alongside Ives’s “The Unanswered Question” and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” (That ensemble gives a concert performance of Berg’s “Wozzeck” at Carnegie the following night.)

Pages from the manuscript of the new concerto, “Scherben der Stille” (“Shards of Silence”).Credit…Unsuk Chin

Heard in Boston on March 4, Chin’s concerto is striking in the intensity of its demands on Kavakos and the novel breadth of the palette it invites the orchestra to play with, both of which are typical traits of her works. Also impressive is the sense of narrative it creates over half an hour as it builds out a motif of just five notes: a flourish of three harmonics that settles down to two more tones.

It’s entirely different from Chin’s earlier violin concerto, but equally powerful, and another worthy addition to the growing list of contemporary contributions to its genre.

Speaking by phone from Berlin, Chin spoke about the inspiration behind the work, and particularly about its opening page. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Since your first violin concerto, you have written several concertos for other instruments. Has your thinking about the concerto as a genre changed at all, in these intervening two decades?

Before my first violin concerto I wrote my piano concerto, which for me is also a very important work. They were not written for a certain soloist; they were very abstract, written for the instrument, rather than a person. Then I wrote my cello concerto for Alban Gerhardt and “Su,” my sheng concerto, for Wu Wei. I also wrote a clarinet concerto for Kari Kriikku.

So my musical thinking changed a little bit because I became interested in musical personalities. Before that I didn’t have so much contact with musicians. I thought about my musical ideas in my mind in a very abstract way and then wrote the pieces.

But this second violin concerto is again another turning point for me, because I was really enthusiastic about Leonidas’s playing, and it was something I’d never heard before. He plays music at an absolute level.

How does what you admire in his playing translate into the concerto?

I know all Leonidas’s repertoire, but especially his Beethoven concerto and all the sonatas. For me, it was a completely new kind of interpretation, really convincing and really strong. Through Leonidas’s playing, I rediscovered Beethoven’s music. Very often Beethoven’s materials and themes are banal, very simple, not very interesting, but he made huge artworks out of these small cells, small motifs. Then I thought, OK, I will take some very small material and try to go deeper.

The music is quite different from all my other concertos. In my other pieces I have lots of ideas and a lot of colors and many movements, but this piece is just one movement, the longest one-movement piece I’ve written. The basic material is also extremely small.

The first page of the published score of the concerto, which begins with a five-note motif for the solo violin, alone.Credit…Boosey & Hawkes

We hear that material right at the start of the piece, for violin alone. Where does this motif go over the course of the work?

The cell in total is five notes, but the first three notes are a kind of grace note; the main notes are the two after that. At the beginning they are the same note, but soon after, it changes. A semitone comes from the first cell.

This small cell, or fragment, is permanently repeated through the whole piece, but every time with a different face. Sometimes it’s very melodic, Romantic; sometimes it sounds tragic; sometimes it sounds like abstract architecture. It is always the same thing, but in different layers, with different faces. It goes from beginning to end, but there is also abrupt change.

A lot of concertos pit the orchestra against the soloist, but I didn’t get the sense that is what you were aiming for here.

In this concerto the most important thing is the solo violin. The orchestra sometimes gives the violinist different colors, but it is mostly supporting the violin — except in one section near the middle, where everyone is doing their own thing and the soloist does not get any support from the orchestra. That is a huge fight between him and the orchestra.

Previously you had banned yourself from writing more than one concerto for a given instrument. You have now broken that rule once; can we expect you to return to the piano or cello?

I don’t think so. This is a very special, exceptional case. I don’t think I will be able to write a second piano concerto, even a second cello concerto. But you never know. Maybe in 20 years.

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