Last Wednesday March 6 my Violin Concerto No. 1 had it’s premiere at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin with soloist Michael Barenboim along with the Pierre Boulez Ensemble under the direction of Lahav Shani. The performance was electric, inspired and inspiring. Both the soloist and the ensemble played with fire and passion! [Also on the program was a gem that I had not known, which is Janacek’s Concertino. I’ve always been drawn to his quirky and slightly off kilter melodic sensibilities, which are sound so fresh and surprising.]
Congratulations to clarinetist Kinan Azmeh on the forthcoming February 8th European release of his new CD, Uneven Sky. This is quite an achievement as it included the recording of four large scale concertos, one of which was his own composition. The CD was recorded in Berlin with the fabulous Deutsches-Symhphonie Orchestre, as well as in Boston for a duet with Yo Yo Ma. The CD also feautres the world-premiere recording of my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift On The Wine-dark Sea.The US release will be around of March 2019.
I am very honored to announce that I am now the composer-in-residence with the wonderful Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen . This residency began this past Saturday (December 1st, 2018) evening with an open rehearsal of my Ramal for orchestra, and followed by a sold out performance on Monday night. The residency will continue into the 2019 – 2020 season and will include the world-premiere of my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea (September 2019) with clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, a performance of my Dabke for string orchestra, as well as a commission for a new work for choir and orchestra to celebrate the 75 anniversary of the WPR and the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is when the WPR was founded.
In addition, I will be resident composer at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago which is celebrating maestro Carlos Kalmar’s 20th season as its general music director. I am currently composing for GPMF a work for choir and orchestra titled A Whitman Cantata with text by Walt Whitman.
This last few months since June have been quite busy; Violin Concerto No. 1 has been completed and I’ve just completed a new work for women’s chorus and string orchestra. This work is based on text from a new translation by Emily Wilson of Homer’s The Odyssey.
With the help of a friend I chose several profiles of the women in The Odyssey as a basis for my text; Penelope, Circe, the Sirens, & Odysseus’ mother. Working with this text was quite challenging but it was interesting to note that only two words appeared several times; “together” & “knowledge”. The first was in reference to the long separation between Penelope and Odysseus (20 years) as he went to fight the war in Troy and then struggled to return home.
The second word, “knowledge”, was in reference to seeking answers to the fates of loved ones; Penelope asking the goddess Athena about her son, Telemachus, and her husband. Also, in Emily Wilson’s brilliant translation she rightly points out that The Sirens were not offering “sex”, as many other translations (by men!) purported, but they were offering knowledge. At that time “knowledge” of the future, the whereabouts of your enemy etc. was power. To ‘know’ something was to be certain beyond a doubt. This made me think quite a lot about how in our time we mistake “information” for “knowledge.” What does it mean to really ‘know’ something today? Has a cursory Google search erased “knowledge” and replaced it with ‘information’?
Important questions about our ability to make decisions based on “knowledge” vs. “information’. That is why I’ve come back to The Odyssey many times and will likely do so in the future.
It was such a pleasure to visit Minneapolis for the first time. The warmth of the people I met as well as the absolutely fabulous Minnesota Orchestra has left me yearning for another visit soon. “Ramal” opened a program that featured John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons and Holst’s The Planets. About Ramal, Rob Hubbard of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote, “There’s also a lot of menace afoot, as well as relentlessly turbulent time changes that can make you feel tossed about. But a mystical aura emerges, the absorbing work leaving me intrigued to hear more of Roustom’s creations.”
Terry Blaine of the Star Tribune wrote:
“Ramal,” a single-movement work by the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom, opened the concert, providing a much spikier musical experience.
Designed to “reflect the unsettled state of the world,” “Ramal” made a jagged, unsettling impression in the Minnesota Orchestra’s rhythmically pointed, incisive performance.
It was a sober curtain-raiser to a concert that eventually provided li
beral amounts of musical relief and escapism from our own troubled planet.”
Now I can focus on a new work for A Far Cry and Lorelei Ensemble. The text for this work comes from a new translation of the Homer’s The Odyssey by Emily Wilson. I am just beginning to explore this material and I look forward to writing for these excellent musicians. The premiere will take place at New England Conservatory’s beautiful Jordan Hall on May 17, 2019.
Incidentally, Violin Concerto No. 2 has already been commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for their principal 2nd violinist, Angie Fuller-Heyed, who premiered my String Quartet No. 1 (pictured above). It was such a pleasure to work with Angie and her colleagues this past August, and the time working together will be incredibly helpful when I begin the violin concerto for her. I tend to write works for specific people rather than an instrument or an ensemble. Getting to know a soloist, conductor, or performers is, for me, vital in the creative process. As is visualizing the physicality of playing a particular passage, especially in a concerto setting. Violin Concerto No. 2 is scheduled to be premiered sometime in the 2020 – 21 season.
Also in April and May, I orchestrated 60 minutes of music of Olivier Deriviere’s beautiful score for a new video game titled, 11-11 Memories Retold. I also had the distinct pleasure of attending the recording session at Abbey Road Studios in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, who are one of the finest orchestras around. This was my third time working at Abbey Road and it is always a thrill, and I always learn so much from working with such an excellent orchestra. I’ve not orchestrated music for anyone other than Olivier, as I don’t have the time to do so. Olivier is a friend and a colleague and, as his regular orchestrator dropped out at the last minute, he was in a bit of a bind. The fact that the gig comes with a few days in London is an incentive as well. On this trip I was able to make a pilgrimage to Benjamin Britten’s home in Aldeburgh. It was a fascinating and inspiring visit!
In other news, I am very happy to announce that I’ve signed a contract with the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago to compose a 15 (or so) minute work for choir and orchestra for their 2019 summer season, which will commemorate maestro Carlos Kalmar‘s 20th year as music director at GPMF. I’ve chosen text by Walt Whitman after extensive research that included reading an informative but frustratingly meandering biography by Justin Kaplan, as well as reading most of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
As it turns out, 2019 will be the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth, which was on May 31st. The themes of the text I’ve chosen are from Whitman’s writing on social justice, corruption and democracy. More on this soon…
I’ve finally decided that it is time to disconnect from all social media. No FB, no Twitter, or any other platform. My reasons for doing so are varied but they include the reasons that have been discussed in public (from Cambridge Analytica and earlier). I also believe that these social media companies are, in essence, vile in their methods of manipulating users into addiction so as to focus primarily on their bottom line. However, you don’t have to take my word for it, there are plenty of articles on books, based on peer reviewed research, that support this point. You might start by reading internet pioneer Jaron Lanier’s book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” Here is a review of this book.
It isn’t enough to blame these big companies but we must also start with ourselves; i.e. the ‘users’. If there weren’t so many people on FB etc. then there wouldn’t be an FB etc. As Jaron writes ““If you’re not part of the solution, there will be no solution.”
Lastly, Lanier’s book makes an important point that I’ll quote from a NY Times review below. Read this and think about it.
“[Lanier’s] argument, however, is a profound one. He worries that our reliance on big tech companies is ruining our capacity for spirituality, by turning us into robotic extensions of their machines. The companies, he argues, have no appreciation for the “mystical spark inside you.” They don’t understand the magic of human consciousness and, therefore, will recklessly destroy it.”
Professionally, FB and Twitter were not all that useful because the work that I do involves face to face relationships that require a trust that is built over time. In addition, it is impossible to keep up with 600 or so ‘Friends’, many of whom I’d never met, even though I was grateful for their reaching out to me. Instead, I prefer to meet people, whenever possible, in person or to be in touch in other ways (old fashioned e-mail, or better yet a letter!). No I’m not a luddite but I’m also not the only one making these points.
Frankly, I feel great without FB in my life any more. Try it 🙂
The news of Oliver Knussen’s untimely passing came to me last night via e-mail. I was deeply saddened to hear this as Knussen was only 66. As far as I’m concerned, Knussen (or ‘Olly’ to those who knew him), was one of the greatest composers, conductors and musical minds of his generation. His music moved me deeply and inspires me constantly. Last year, I composed a work for solo piano titled Soliloquia No. 1 and I dedicated it to Mr. Knussen. Earlier this year I had planned on mailing it to him with a letter thanking him for all the inspiration his music has given. However, I was too self conscious and shy to follow through with this, which is something that I regret very much.
Rest in peace, Olly.
There is a beautiful tribute in the LA Times by Mark Swed here.
My first violin concerto is commissioned by the Pierre Boulez Saal, through the Daniel Barenboim Foundation, for violinist Michael Barenboim and the Pierre Boulez Ensemble. It will premiere on March 6th, 2019 in Berlin at the Pierre Boulez Saal. Details about the concert are here. I began working on this new commission, in earnest, in mid-May, but ideas about it have been around for a few years.
The violin concerto is inspired by a moment, that came and went, at a rehearsal in 2014. At the time I had no idea that this ‘moment’ would inspire a violin concerto but I was quite certain that there was a piece to be weaved from it. This ‘moment’ occured during the summer of 2014, when I had the opportunity to travel to Buenos Aires for the premiere of my Ramal for orchestra by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Maestro Daniel Barenboim. During one of the rehearsals, the orchestra was rehearsing Mozart’s piano concerto No. 27. A number of bars into the first movement, D.B. stopped the orchestra to focus on a line that wasn’t played correctly. He focused in on this first violin line:
The reaction to this phrase, played on without the bass line and the inner voices, by the Arab violinists was an immediate hearing of the maqam Hijaz. So they began improvising in the Arabic style, but just for an instant. Like many wonderful but ephemeral moments in life, it was an inspirational moment that it stayed with me all these years.
Doubtless, my recollection of it has also changed. However, this phrase, and the reaction to it, are now at the heart of my violin concerto. On some level, I suppose I’m interested in why Mozart, and later Beethoven, were attracted to these ‘oriental’ figures. Also, why later they became grotesque ‘orientalist’ pieces that have caused all kinds of misunderstanding between “East & West”. But there is also some cause for optimism that these kinds of intersections can resonate across boundaries and cultures.
I know what you are thinking, but my training in ethnomusicology long ago taught me to bury the notion that ‘music is a universal language.’ It isn’t. However, there are some commonalities and that are undeniable. For this violin concerto, the danger of slipping down the slope of orientalist shlock is very real, but the possible rewards for navigating this treacherous path are also great, and very inviting.
This phrase, transposed up a fifth from the original Mozart key of Bb, is at the heart of the harmonic and melodic language of this violin concerto:
With a little work, and imagination the above can yield this harmony-mood-feeling (we need a word for this):
In terms of maqam (Arab music scalar system), I hear it along these lines (kind of a hyper maqam Saba on C#):
But more on this later.
From here the journey begins.
BTW… why am I calling this work Violin Concerto No. 1? Because No. 2 is already in the works. More on that later.
It was such a great pleasure to work with the Deutsches Symphony Orchestre, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, conductor Manuel Nawari and engineer Florian Schmidt to bring my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea to life. We recorded at the legendary Jesus Christe Kirche in Dahlem, Berlin. ‘Legendery’ because the great conductor Herbert Von Karajan used to record the Berlin Philharmonic there because he loved the acoustics. Indeed, the acoustics are terrific but the isolation is not so isolated. We often had to stop recording when children were playing outside or the guy across the street decided to hop on his John Deer mini-tractor and haul random objects around his lawn. All in all, it will be a terrific recording that also features music by Kinan Azmeh, Zaid Jabri, and the late Dia Succari. It should be out in November on the Dreyer-Gaido Label.