First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 22, 2017, Gustavo Dudamel conducting, with Pekka Kuusisto, violin soloist (world premiere)
About this Piece
The Los Angeles Philharmonic has commissioned, premiered, and presented a number of Daníel Bjarnason’s works over the last few years, including at its Reykjavík Festival, which he co-curated with LA Phil Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen, and its Centennial Birthday Celebration Concert and Gala in 2019, that saw the premiere of From Space I Saw Earth, a work for three conductors, led by Gustavo Dudamel, Zubin Mehta, and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Scordatura is another product of this creative relationship, commissioned by the LA Phil, with generous support from Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting. It comes by its title naturally enough, with the violin’s lowest string detuned way down to a low D, which roots the piece. (The Italian word, which literally means “discord” or “mistuning,” is a term used to indicate non-standard tuning.)
This sort of tuning is not uncommon in many kinds of folk music, including the Scandinavian traditional music in which Pekka Kuusisto is well-practiced. Bjarnason wrote this new concerto specifically for Kuusisto and it plays to his versatility immediately. The soloist begins alone, whistling along with a lightly plucked tune, at first in unison, but soon diverging for a bit of two-part polyphony. (Check out the YouTube videos of Kuusisto singing folk songs while playing the violin, bowed or pizzicato.)
The soloist continues with a leaping line, now bowed and shadowed by a flute instead of whistling. The orchestral violins join the soloist with plucked counterpoint in tight canonic imitation of the opening motifs, and a slightly less confident instruction from the composer: “try to whistle unison (or in octave) with your line.”
This sort of close counterpoint, like a personalized take on the micro-polyphony of the late Hungarian composer György Ligeti, is a favored texture of Bjarnason. Combined and contrasted with strong unisons, it creates the effect of lines coming in and out of focus. It also allows for lots of orchestral solos to play in a shifting sonic field, in chamber music for a mega-tet. The soloist has much to do, including two improvised cadenzas, and much of it hyper-virtuosic—skittering broken chords, ricocheting repeated notes, powerfully pungent quadruple stops anchored on that thrumming, guttural low D. But solos like the introduction and cadenzas aside, the protagonist operates largely within this interactive framework, one among many.
Bjarnason casts Scordatura in a single organic movement, roughly 25 minutes long. He fills it with clearly defined shapes and textures that serve both formal and rhetorical functions, with the cadenzas helping to define the structure. The first comes near the middle, emerging on that low D string from soft timpani rumbling. After it, the piece regathers its motivic energy, and the second cadenza introduces a manically dancing finale, where Bjarnason combines and reworks previous elements. He closes with a long fade-out over droning Ds, with the soloist’s rapid repeated notes evaporating in glassy harmonics. —John Henken