3.07.2010

World premiere of Allen Shawn’s new commission with the RPO

World premiere of Allen Shawn’s new commission with the RPO

An agoraphobic composer and a concertmaster’s first commission combine for an RPO world premiere

Anna Reguero – Staff Writer
Arts – March 7, 2010 - 5:00am
CARLOS ORTIZ staff photographer
Composer Allen Shawn, below, from Vermont was asked to write a concerto for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s concertmaster Juliana Athayde, left, by Ron and Donna Fielding — longtime supporters of the arts in Rochester.

Most composers and performers have a high level of anxiety and stress when works are debuted.

But the level of irrational fears is much higher for composer Allen Shawn. Shawn, who will have a work premiered this week by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, is an agoraphobic — one who fears being in open or public places. If there’s any truth to the image of the reclusive artist opening up through his art, it’s probably in people like this 61-year-old professor at Bennington College in Vermont.

For Shawn, composition is the one area in his life where his fears dissipate and he has the ability for infinite imagination and exploration.

I think for composers, very often that’s where we’re most alive. This is where we totally cut loose,” he says, noting that his personality isn’t anti-social or shy, despite his fears that he laid out in the 2007 book, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life (Penguin, $15).

Simple tasks such as driving over a bridge, walking down an uncharted path or getting on an airplane are sometimes impossible.

Fortunately, Shawn’s sense of humor hasn’t been sacrificed along with his traveling. When he thinks about his inability to share his music across seas and nations, he jokes, “Wouldn’t it be nice to think it’s why I’m not better known?”

His work is definitely known to RPO listeners. The orchestra has played two of his works in previous seasons: his Piano Concerto was performed in 2001 with pianist Ursula Oppens, and his Symphony in Three Parts was performed in 2006. This week, Rochester will hear the world premiere of his first Violin Concerto, performed by concertmaster Juliana Athayde.

Shawn’s relationship with the RPO comes from an unsuspecting place: a high school friend. Ron Fielding, a longtime supporter of the arts in Rochester, attended the Putney School, a prestigious prep school in Vermont, with Shawn.

Putney had a very distinguished music program,” says Shawn. “Everybody learns to read music, sings from a score, participates in weekly sings with the school. Ron was part of that. It helped foster his love of the arts, which he’s brought to bear on his activities in Rochester.”

Along with facilitating the RPO’s past performances of Shawn’s music, Fielding, with his wife Donna, asked Shawn to write this concerto for RPO’s darling concertmaster — except Athayde and Shawn had never met, nor had Shawn heard her play before. Nonetheless, with a commission in gear, Shawn wrote the concerto, and he and Athayde met last summer to make revisions.

It was a really interesting experience because it was the first time I had a piece written for me and the first time I’ve premiered a violin concerto, so it’s a lot of firsts,” Athayde says. “Usually a big part of my preparation is listening to the music, and that was not really an option in this piece. Taking away that part of the process was at first difficult, but then also freeing because there is no conventional wisdom.”

The concerto also doesn’t follow conventional formats. In four movements instead of the typical three-movement form, the work shifts from an introductory first movement to a dance-macabre scherzo movement, a lyrical third movement and ends with a frenzied fourth movement that includes a waltz and closes with a bang.

It’s an endurance test for Athayde, with few places to catch a breath. Besides the fact that she plays the majority of the work, the work straddles the very highest range of the violin. Athayde has covered the score in penciled-in fingering and bowing notes, to help decipher the swarm of black musical notes on the page.

With all the risks of performing a new work, she’ll use the score on stage — perhaps her own irrational fears at work. But in the tweaking process with Shawn, she tried to make sure Shawn’s wishes for the work were met, no matter the challenge.

I think when the Tchaikovsky (Violin) Concerto was written, it was considered unplayable,” she says. “Obviously, we don’t consider it unplayable now. So I think it’s a really big responsibility for the performer to deliver the piece with the composer’s intentions really front and center, but also to make it sound beautiful and appealing for the listener.”

Audience members who enjoy the classic sounds of an orchestra might question the degree of modernism in Shawn’s work. Athayde says the work is foremost a lyrical work full of beauty. While areas of the concerto will conjure up associations to Prokofiev and Stravinsky (Shawn would agree), she says there might also be some unfamiliar sounds.

I definitely think it’s understandable or attainable by any audience member,” says Athayde. “Yes, there are things that are going to stretch their ears. I really think when everyone hears the whole product, it really comes together.”

While Shawn might have a hard time with trying most new things, the fears do not apply to his music.

AREGUERO@DemocratandChronicle.com

If you go

What: Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performing Sibelius and Mendelssohn, and a world premiere piece by Allen Shawn with soloist Juliana Athayde. Christopher Seaman conducts.
Where: Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $20 to $75.
Information: (585) 454-2100 or www.rpo.org.

Provided by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

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