Saturday, January 28, 2023

Todd Mason’s Gripping New Violin Concerto

Tosca Opdam recording Todd Mason's Violin Concerto in Budapest.


Having been able previously to at least grasp the outline of Todd Mason’s Violin Concerto via a MIDI recording generated from the computerized score, it was fascinating and revealing to really get to grips with the work through the fine studio recording that the concerto has now received, from which excerpts can be enjoyed here.

Todd Mason.
This was made in Budapest, Hungary, during Europe's summer 2022 heatwave by the young Dutch violinist Tosca Opdam and the Budapest Scoring Orchestra under the baton of the Hungarian conductor, Peter Illényi—the recording sessions and the long build-up to them were previously documented by the composer on LA Opus here.

My initial impression, confirmed by the live performance, was how unified a work this concerto is, feeling from the start as if it knows where it’s going and where it intends to end up. Several factors combine to create this sense of direction and purpose, not least being the fact that the initial tempo mark of Allegro (quarter note=ca.128) is nowhere amended through the entire 24-minute duration.

The second unifying factor is the repeated upward-rushing 16th-note figuration on muted strings which, after a soft gong-stroke, drives the music right from the first bar. Never far from the action in its original guise, this also appears in many mutated forms—inverted, with intervals expanded, stretched to 8th notes and quarter-notes, etc. Combined with the near-ubiquitous 4/4 time signature, this figuration infuses the whole piece so that even when absent its sense of purposeful motion feels ever ready to reappear.

Driven by the scurrying strings, the substantial 47-measure orchestral introduction proceeds via quiet solo wind and brass incursions through two wave-like climaxes before the soloist enters—and it’s worth noting here that despite being economically scored for just eight winds, six brass, timpani, two percussion, harp, and strings, Mason’s Violin Concerto is far from being a “chamber concerto.” Its single movement embraces enough variety and drama to fill any auditorium.

Conductor Peter Illényi and Tosca Opdam at a break in the recording.

The greatest advantage of hearing a live performance compared to a MIDI recreation lies in the solo part (in any case a single violin is the least successful of electronic impersonations). Ms. Opdam’s assumption of this virtuoso role—which covers the gamut from high-speed articulation through wide-leaping double-stopping to rich legato, as well as the most stratospheric of harmonics— is wholly committed and as expressively varied as it is technically secure. And any lingering hint of metronomic rigidity from the MIDI version is banished for good.

Formally, after the soloist joins the orchestra, the concerto continues its busy progress until the violin gradually imposes a calmer mood, with some expressive woodwind and horn solos. This first “slow” section (though, as noted, with no modification to the Allegro marking) comes to a full close, after which two brief solo cadenzas book-end a sharply contrasted orchestral passage in which peremptory staccato chords are flipped back and forth between winds and brass.

More lyrical music now ensues, with some rather Coplandesque “wide open spaces” writing for the strings, but it’s characteristic of this concerto that no single mood persists for long. Some spiccato writing for the soloist that briefly recalls Barber’s Violin Concerto leads to a purposeful orchestral surge, but then the mood relaxes into the most overtly romantic and nostalgic-seeming music yet, which rarifies further into dreamy violin harmonics.

Eventually the violin recovers, as it were, its sense of purpose, the staccato orchestral passage recurs, and then while this is still happening the gong quietly leads off what proves to be a near-literal recapitulation of the concerto’s opening. Continuing the recapping, the violin spiccato also comes back, but this time leads to the last, longest and most varied of the concerto’s three marked cadenzas, after which the work climbs to a wholly positive and emphatic fortissimo conclusion.

In terms of 20th century antecedents, the piece is clearly in a line from the concertos of Alban Berg and Béla Bartók, but so far as American compatriots of preceding generations are concerned—aside from the hints of Copland and Barber already noted—Mason’s Violin Concerto seems to me to share much, in its mix of tough-minded near-atonality and unsentimental lyricism, with the great Violin Concerto of George Rochberg. It’s good to know that there currently seems some likelihood of its future presentation where it belongs, in a concert hall in front of an audience and in the hands of Tosca Opdam.


Violin Concerto by Todd Mason, recorded at Budapest Scoring Studio, Budapest, Hungary, by Tosca Opdam (violin) and the Budapest Scoring Orchestra conducted by Peter Illényi, July 2022.
Photos: Todd Mason.

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