BIG BANG: New concerto expresses composer’s devotion to his bride, who is also its soloist
By Paul Horsley
When David Ludwig began falling in love with the violin virtuoso Bella Hristova, he knew two things right away. One, that he wanted to write a concerto for her some day. And two, that it would begin with a loud crash.
Not to suggest that the relationship was filled with turmoil, David said recently with a laugh. On the contrary, the “jarring and transformative” beginning of the recently-completed concerto is a recognition of just how profoundly a relationship can alter your existence.
“It’s about the kind of change and transformation in your life that love and commitment can bring,” said the 41-year-old native of Bucks County, PA, who is recognized as one of the most distinctive compositional voices in America today. “So it’s a kind of ‘Big Bang’ moment, actually. … But I don’t want people to hear it and say, Oh wow, that sounds like a tumultuous marriage.”
Bella and David were married in August of last year, and the experience inspired an extraordinary Violin Concerto that Bulgarian-born violinist will play this April with Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony. The Concerto is not just dedicated to the composer’s wife, it was written with her artistry in mind. “I only know of a few concertos written by composers for first performances by their spouses,” David wrote in a program note, “and I don’t know of any that are motivated by the idea of marriage itself, as this one is.”
The piece is in one sense a wedding celebration, with a first movement suggesting the dance of courtship, a slow movement (“Ceremony”) representing the wedding ritual, and a finale outlining the slightly inebriated joy of the wedding party. Along the way it alludes to known wedding tunes, including Mendelssohn’s and some traditional Eastern European melodies. (Bride and groom both have family roots in Eastern and Central Europe; David is the grandson of pianist Rudolf Serkin.)
But David has taken things a step further: Unbeknownst to his new bride, he tracked down a Violin Concerto by her late father, Russian composer Yuri Chichkov, which until recently was assumed lost. He has included a theme from Yuri’s concerto in the “Ceremony” movement, and when he and I spoke on February 15th he hadn’t yet told Bella about the Valentine’s surprise. “I’ll probably tell her later today,” he said of his plans to present her with a copy of the 1967 concerto. (Talk about romantic!)
Bella has immensely enriched him as a composer, David said. “I’m lucky to have married not just an incredible musician but also an incredible editor,” he said. “They say you should marry someone who can make you a better person. She makes me a better composer as well.” She is even able to give him advice about structure and content, he added, “as someone who has spent her life in music, playing music. In a way it’s like a playwright having an incredible actor to share thoughts or opinions on what it is they’re reading.”
A member of the Curtis Institute of Music faculty in Philadelphia (and artistic director of its 20/21 Ensemble), David writes music that is dense and compelling, with a deep sense of the past balanced with a contemporary outlook. His Fanfare for Sam from 2011, for example (written in homage to Samuel Barber for the inauguration of the new building at Curtis) is at once a roiling personal statement for large orchestra and a subtle nod toward works such as the Adagio for Strings. (Barber, also a Philadelphia-area native, was a fixture of the Curtis Institute during its early years.)
In addition to Curtis, David holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory, the Manhattan School, the Juilliard School, and the University of Pennsylvania (PhD). Among his teachers were John Corigliano, Richard Danielpour, Jennifer Higdon, Richard Hoffmann and Ned Rorem.
David said he encourages young composers to know both the past and the present. “For me personally the literature of music has been very important, and I’m sure much of that is related to my upbringing.” At the same time, he added, “composers grow over the longest career paths of all musicians, I think. So we have that kind of time to develop and really take in as much music as we can.” He compares the process to literature. “Wouldn’t a writer have to know Tolstoy and Dickens and Shakespeare? So I think of the Beethovens and the Brahmses as our great writers and great novelists. … And it would be incumbent on you to be aware of that as a musician.”
David has written works for Jennifer Koh, Jonathan Biss, Benjamin Beilman, eighth blackbird, the Borromeo Quartet, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, the Philadelphia Orchestra and many others. His choral work The New Colossus was performed for President Obama during his second inauguration. (“It was very overwhelming,” David said, “having my piece be the first music that the President heard in the first day of his second inauguration.”) In 2014 he scored the film Cymbeline starring Ethan Hawke and Ed Harris, and hopes to have the opportunity to work in cinema again.
Writing a piece for a specific artist, especially someone who is very close to you, can be a two-edged sword, he said. “On the one hand you want it to really fit like a glove, to be tailor-made for that performer. On the other hand, and this is the challenge, other people have to be able to ‘wear’ it, make it their own. … We learn about pieces in history that have this kind of very personal or intimate provenance, but eventually the piece gets its own life, other people take it up. … So that’s just as true in this piece as in any other concerto.”
In the case of the Violin Concerto, David said he was aided by knowing Bella’s playing really well, adding that the process is even more complex than that. “I actually imagined her on the stage playing the music,” he said. “It’s almost a visual thing in some ways, certainly aural. But that’s very much a part of the process. And actually I do that with anyone I write for: It’s an actualization in some ways.”
The new concerto, to be performed April 8-10 at the Kauffman Center, is at once gorgeously orchestrated and rhythmically compelling, and it promises to be a highlight of Our Town’s concert season. The program, titled World Tour, also includes Ives’ Symphony No. 3 (“The Camp Meeting”), Debussy’s Ibéria and Gershwin’s An American in Paris.
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