Upcoming Events
13th June 2017
Theme and Variations

Viola and double-bass take centre stage! Themes and variations

20 June 2017: Stratford ArtsHouse

  • Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf – Sinfonia Concertante for Double-Bass and Viola in D major, Kr.127
  • Julian Philips – Ballades Concertantes [world premiere]
  • Joseph Haydn – Symphony no49 ‘La Passione’ in F minor, Hob.I:49

Most – if not all – concertos are composed with specific performers in mind. Sometimes, they are written to showcase the composer’s own skills (think Mozart, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, etc.). Many times, they are written for a restricted number of instruments – particularly, it seems, violin and piano.

At the time of writing, IMSLP – the International Music Score Library Project: “Sharing the world’s public domain music” – holds 119,774 works, by 15,188 composers. Of these, 4,136 are labelled as concertos: 1,081 including ‘violin’ in their title (26.1%); and 471 containing the word ‘piano’ (11.4%). There are nearly as many concertos written for oboe (238) as there are cello (257); but only 117 for my favourite instrument, the bassoon… – and only one (yes, one!) for the glorious cor anglais (a very recent work, by Simon Laumer). Even the tuba has more written for it: with seven!

Tonight’s soloists – Virginia and Stacey – have, respectively 99 (viola) and 27 (double-bass) to choose from. But it is only when you type in ‘Dittersdorf’ or ‘Symphony Concertante’ that tonight’s first ‘double concerto’ is revealed – which, I’m afraid, only goes to show that all the above numbers should be treated (like opinion polls) as reasonably indicative (especially as contemporary composers seem to be much more inventive in their solo works: there already being two concertos listed for ‘electric bass’).

The point I’m trying to make is that such instruments are very rarely brought forward from their places in the orchestra… – and yet, when they are, we realize just how unfair this is: both the viola and double-bass being capable (as you will hear) of sonorous lyricism and striking virtuosity so different from their smaller cousins, the violin and cello. I accept that there are fewer players (certainly fewer solo players) of these instruments; and that surrounding such lower voices with orchestral timbres that do not overpower them may present more complex challenges… – although Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and Elgar met these head-on in creating glorious works for cello, of course!

We should therefore be immensely grateful to Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and to Julian Philips, for creating pieces that, although around 250 years apart, demonstrate what we have been missing. In their extremely different ways, not only do they give us the full range of these wonderful instruments’ capabilities, whilst producing music that captivates; but they demonstrate – as the Dalai Lama said – that “if you listen, you may learn something new”.

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