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Aaron Jay Kernis

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Viola Concerto (2014)
Work Notes
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AJK Music
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
27 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Programme Note
Aaron Jay Kernis Viola Concerto (2014)
Aaron Jay Kernis, composer
Paul Neubauer, violist
1. Braid
2. Romance
3. A Song My Mother Taught Me

Composer Note
This new concerto for Viola is inspired essentially by its extraordinary soloist whose playing I've known over many years. Paul Neubauer and I first worked together in 1993 when American Public Radio commissioned my Still Movement with Hymn for piano quartet. In some ways this new concerto follows up on the tone of that piece. I have always been drawn to the soulful character of the viola, and have been excited to write this work from the moment Paul requested it. Also, I was extremely moved by Paul's recording (with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott) of viola music of Robert Schumann, and this lead me to re-explore the music of Robert and Clara Schumann in depth once again while writing the concerto.

The opening movement, Braid, is a series of elaborations and embellishments of a sequence of harmonies and melodies. It shifts from clear three-note chords at the opening and closing to a thickening gauze of colors that weave around the viola line and lead, at its peak, to a chaotic frenzy.

The second movement, Romance is a lyrical, romantic intermezzo, which grows out of breathing, fluid gestures and harmonies that link to the Brahms/early Schoenberg tradition. The title came from discovering a number of lovely piano pieces by Clara Schumann titled Romanze, clearly written in mind of her husband.

The final movement, A Song My Mother Taught Me , is the longest and darkest in the concerto (around 16 minutes). Knowing of the Paul Neubauer's interest in folk music, I decided to base this movement on the well-known Yiddish song, Tumbalalaika,which I had first learned in my childhood. I had always felt it have very penetrating words and a sad melody, and was later surprised to hear it sung in many ways – as a romantic wedding song, wildly gyrating dance tune, and even in a ironic, comedic rendition. Later, after hearing the Schumann viola CD, a melody from his Op. 32, No. 4 set of short piano pieces lodged in my ear and would not leave it, so that melody and its distinctive rhythm became the frame of the movement, with Tumbalalaika as its most important musical material. Both melodies have a strong rhythmic kinship with the other.

The concerto begins with plaintive, virtuosic lines in the clarinet and bass clarinet, then the Schumann melody is heard in its simplest form. It returns throughout the movement, and is increasingly deconstructed and harmonically decayed. The use of the Yiddish tune takes the opposite approach – while it is like a theme and series of variations, the ten linked variations start at their most fragmented and least melodic and proceed, clarifying somewhat, towards the tune. Only very late in the movement is the simple, original tune heard, above pulsating strummed chords. The form could be construed to be variations in search of their melody. After the tune is finally heard, a short, intense solo viola cadenza is followed by distinctive climactic moments and increasingly bleak, distant closing sections which end the work.

— Aaron Jay Kernis ©2014

"[Kernis' Viola Concerto] is more conventional on the surface but richer in its inner working...Throughout the concerto, Kernis supplies musical cues for the familiar, ingratiating "Tumbalalaika" tune, with the viola leading what sounds like an archaeological dig through distant harmonies and melodies."
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times,17/11/2014
"With a raw spirit and exceptional virtuosity, Neubauer beautifully portrayed Kernis’ masterwork, one underpinned by relationships and which focused on folk tunes...Comprised of three movements — “Braid,” “Romance” and “A Song My Mother Taught Me,” Kernis’ concerto is often somber, but not without a sense of curiosity and intrigue...Kernis wrote this piece for Neubauer, and it was a special privilege to hear him play it."
Leah Harrison, The Chautauquan Daily,15/08/2014
"It was the three-movement viola concerto...that registered the highest peak of the night’s achievement."
Art Connor, Idyllwild Town Crier,10/05/2014
"Ecstasy meets improv in new viola concerto. Aaron Jay Kernis, who speaks softly but writes big, passionate, highly lyrical music that makes you sit up and take notice, has lived in New York City most of his life but has been an important presence in Twin Cities music for more than two decades....Kernis’s concerto is a large three-movement work with vividly contrasting colors and carefully worked-out structures that offers the viola — as well as the orchestra — ample technical challenges along with numerous opportunities to show off the instrument’s unique, dark sound. Passages of intense lyricism, especially in the movement marked “Romance,” approach a kind of ecstasy that is one of the hallmarks of Kernis’s music...Kernis has given the musical world something it needs: a viola concerto — and a good one."
Michael Anthony, StarTribune,25/04/2014
"The concerto proved an often gripping miasma of musical moods, a complex confluence of ideas and emotions, and a splendid showcase for Neubauer's talents. Kernis' Viola Concerto interspersed moments of agitated, chaotic cacophony with some entrancing melodic melancholy."
Ron Hubbard, Pioneer Press,24/04/2014
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