Art never really exists in a vacuum. It may not always be obvious, but each artistic creation fits somewhere in the constellation of human experience, drawn from and given meaning by the array of stars surrounding it. Whether the connections are made explicit by the artist, implicit in the work or simply in the mind of the spectator, there is always some link in the vast network. Music is no different in this respect from any other type of art, and there is perhaps no better composer active today to demonstrate this than Christopher Cerrone, whose “Violin Concerto” will premiere this weekend with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Jennifer Koh as soloist.
“I’m really interested in how art is intertextual,” said Cerrone in an interview with The Daily. “To me, the most powerful thing is the combination of words and music in some way or another … it’s funny, I was having a sort of argument with a friend about this, and he said that words limit what music can be, and I actually don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that I’m limiting anyone’s interpretation by giving you these words — I think that I’m giving you an interpretation, but there’s still limitless possibilities within that framework.”
Cerrone’s work often draws on aspects of literature. The most prominent example of this is his opera “Invisible Cities,” based on Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name and for which he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2014. But often his influences from the written word take on a more opaque appearance.
This is the case with the “Violin Concerto.” Subtitled “Breaks and Breaks” — taken from the epigraph of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (which is itself taken from the poem “The Testing Tree,” by Stanley Kunitz) — the concerto is woven throughout with quotations and references to works of art meant to evoke the feeling or mood of particular sections of the music.
“There’s a bunch of different quotes that are pulled throughout the entire piece, references to the playwright Enda Walsh… and Shakespeare, and also a poet named Mei Mei Berssenbrugge,” Cerrone said. The epigraph itself, which Cerrone places at the beginning of the the piece, has multiple meanings, meanings which are at once both personal and political.
“I remember after the election, I remember reading that phrase, ‘in a murderous time, the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking,’ and it sort of became this mantra for me, and I’ve been thinking about it a tremendous amount,” Cerrone said. “It felt like something to very much encapsulate the emotional core of what the piece is.”
Though the violin concerto is by no means an explicitly political piece, in the composer’s eyes, it nevertheless reflects a worldview and perspective that implicitly repudiates the current occupant of the Oval Office and the general state of national affairs.
“Something that I’ve been thinking about in a lot of my work lately is creating a kind of vulnerability,” Cerrone said. “And it’s like, vulnerability as political statement. Vulnerability as, like, ‘what is the opposite of Donald Trump?’ The opposite is someone who is willing to admit their own fragility, and admit their own vulnerability. And I find that there’s something very beautiful about that, because it feels to me like a kind of political gesture that is honest and open, and also sort of not reactive.”
The subtitle of the piece is also, on a lighter note, a bit of a pun, given that the concerto is divided into seven sections played without pause in between them. In this way the piece has no breaks, let alone “Breaks and Breaks.”
The concerto was written for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the soloist, Jennifer Koh, a violinist much acclaimed for both her skill and her wide embrace of musics both classical and contemporary. The commissioning came about, in large part, because Cerrone happened to be sitting in a certain chair during a meeting, a chair next to Erik Rönmark, Vice President and General Manager of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
“I met (Rönmark) in a meeting with the American Symphony Orchestra League, because our group Sleeping Giant” — a collective of composers Cerrone and five others formed while at graduate school at Yale — “was doing a three-year residency where we were all the composers-in-residence for the Albany Symphony,” Cerrone said. “And Erik and I were sitting next to each other in a meeting and made some funny jokes to each other, just sort of got to know each other a little bit, and then I learned about what was going on in Detroit.”
Cerrone later came to Michigan for a performance of one of his works by the Michigan Philharmonic, and while there, met up with Rönmark again for some drinks and to get to know the DSO.
“Right around that time I had written a little tiny piece for Jenny Koh, she had this project called ‘Shared Madness,’ where she commissioned like 30 composers to write little caprices for her,” Cerrone said. “And so I did, and she really liked it, she called me, and she said, ‘You know, Chris, I really would actually like for you to write me a concerto,’ and I’m like, ‘Ooh, that sounds great.’ And Erik was like, ‘Text me any ideas you have about doing a piece.’ And I was like, ‘Well, what if I wrote Jenny a concerto?’ And he’s like, ‘Sounds great.’ It was really one of the easier projects to come together for me.”
Now that the project has come to fruition, Koh is set the premiere the piece on Friday, followed by two more concerts, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. The program will also include Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony and a piece by the University’s own Roshanne Etezady. Tickets range from $15 to $100.