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Marsalis & Strauss

Originality and modernity are the key notes of Nicolla Benedetti’s concert accompanied by the Verbier Festival Junior Orchestra directed by James Gaffigan.


Violin concerto in D major

Don Juan Op. 20

Virtuosic for soloist and orchestra alike, Wynton Marsalis’s four-movement Violin Concerto in D was written in 2015 for Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti, blending the vocabulary of a jazz and blues orchestra with that of a modern symphony orchestra, inspired equally by Afro-American music’s Anglo-Celtic roots. Opening on a solo violin whisper – as if to say, “Once upon a time” – the Rhapsody first movement feels imbued with the spirits of Strauss and Gershwin, and is described by Marsalis as “a complex dream that becomes a nightmare,” but “progresses into peacefulness and dissolves into ancestral memory.” Next comes a madcap Rondo Burlesque of complex syncopated rhythms and contrasting metres, mixing styles including New Orleans jazz and African gumbo. Blues then moves from flirtation, courtship and intimacy through to final loss and loneliness, before then ebullient Hootenanny finale.

Premiered in 1889, Strauss’s sumptuously scored orchestral tone poem Don Juan draws on verses by Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau that are kinder to this famous fictional Spanish libertine than Mozart’s Don Giovanni opera was, painting his seductions as a quest for female perfection that ends with him deliberately losing a duel to one of his victim’s fathers. Opening with glitteringly virtuosic orchestral writing evoking Don Juan’s youth and virility, its high-octane energy is soon punctuated by two romantic interludes: the first ushered in by an amorous violin solo, but with a sudden minor-keyed curtailment suggesting a bad end to the affair; the second featuring a tender oboe solo. The sense of impending doom increases as we then travel through past material. After a glittering climax, the orchestra stops dead as Don Juan, now world-weary, bares his chest to his opponent’s sword. Next, a pained chord, a dissonant trumpet note as the blade goes in, descending violin and viola trills as his life trickles away, and a swift end, in chilling quiet.

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