In this blog you can read a collection of Write Ups about composer James Matheson.
How many composers are fortunate enough to have a brand-new work performed by two major soloists with two major orchestras under two major conductors, only a few months apart?
That is the happy situation in which James Matheson finds himself.
The admired American composer’s new Violin Concerto, a co-commission by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is to be given its world premiere at this week’s CSO subscription concerts in Symphony Center. The soloist will be Baird Dodge, the CSO’s principal second violin, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.
The concerto… owes its existence to a friendship that began some 20 years ago when Matheson and Dodge were roommates at Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia. Although their interests and backgrounds varied, they shared what Matheson calls “a certain wandering spirit.” Matheson studied philosophy and music while playing electric bass in a rock band. A chemistry major, Dodge came from a musical family (his father is the respected computer music composer Charles Dodge) and studied violin and viola from an early age before enrolling in the precollege division of New York’s Juilliard School of Music….
Dodge received his master’s degree in music from SUNY-Stony Brook in 1994 and joined the CSO two years later as a member of the viola section. He moved to the second violins later that year and was named principal second violin in 2002. Since then, he has remained a regular participant in the CSO’s contemporary series, MusicNOW, which presented several Matheson works to local audiences.
Following his own university studies, Matheson plunged into what has since grown to become a prolific career as composer. His distinguished catalogue of orchestral, chamber and vocal works has won him numerous awards and grants. Earlier this month, the 41-year-old, Brooklyn-based composer received the prestigious Charles Ives Living, a two-year, $200,000 award bestowed by the American Academy of Letters.
The idea of having the CSO commission a concerto from Matheson began percolating in Dodge’s head as soon as he joined the orchestra. But the uncertain transition period between the departure of Daniel Barenboim and the arrival of Riccardo Muti, plus the difficulty of finding a conductor willing to sign on to the project, kept it in limbo for nearly a decade. It was Salonen who broke the impasse. The Finnish conductor had programmed Matheson’s chamber works during his tenure as the L.A. Phil’s music director, a tenure that ended in 2009, the year when Matheson became director of the orchestra’s Composer Fellowship Program. And Salonen had known of Dodge’s abilities from his many years as a CSO guest conductor.
Salonen used his clout and his belief in Matheson’s music to persuade the CSO administration to commit to giving the world premiere. The L.A. Phil signed on to the project soon afterward….
The composer wasn’t worried Dodge would find anything unplayable. Rather, he explains, it was a matter of tailoring “the music I wanted to hear” to the musical personality of his “incredibly gifted” friend and colleague. Matheson cites the works of Olivier Messiaen, Witold Lutoslawski and Steven Stucky as central influences on his style, along with the music of Gustav Mahler.
“I wanted to write something that would make somebody in the audience weep”
Indeed, he makes no secret of the fact that the slow movement of his Violin Concerto was inspired by the emotional pull of the slow movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony – a masterpiece Salonen has conveniently paired with the new Matheson opus at this week’s subscription concerts.
“I’m almost ashamed to admit this,” says the composer, “but I wanted to write something that would make somebody in the audience weep” – something “unabashedly beautiful” that would resonate with his love of Mahler’s sublime Andante. His larger intention was to give free rein to his friend’s whiplash virtuosity. The three movements – marked “Caprice,” “Chaconne” and “Dance” – progress from hyperkinetic swirls of 16th notes to a finale Dodge describes as “an adrenaline-charged ride that sounds like Paganini if he had grown up in Appalachia and then had his first encounters with contemporary music and espresso at the same time….
Matheson’s concerto is a supercharged showpiece for virtuoso violinist and orchestra that connects with the listener on a visceral as well as intellectual level. It keeps the soloist extremely busy as he negotiates a maze of vivid, colorful orchestral effects that ultimately are the most interesting aspect of the piece. While neo-romantic in overall flavor, Matheson is original enough to shun the feel-good bromides that constitute so much of today’s “new” classical music.
–John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
December 13th, 2011
Unlike many younger composers who have a basic idea and then try to orchestrate it, Matheson writes in full orchestral 3-D. Waves of tonal sounds moved across the stage, and sections had individual voices and even voices within the sections.
–Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times