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Violin Concerto No. 2, Scherben der Stille (Shards of Silence)

South Korea-born, Berlin-based composer Unsuk Chin had no intention of writing a second violin concerto but was moved to do so by the playing of the violinist Leonidas Kavakos.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born in Seoul, South Korea, on July 14, 1961
  • Year completed: 2021
  • Commission/dedication: Written for Leonidas Kavakos on commission from the London Symphony Orchestra with Simon Rattle, Music Director, supported by the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation; the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director, supported in part by the New Works Fund established by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency; and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons, Gewandhauskapellmeister
  • First performance: January 6, 2022, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle conducting, soloist Leonidas Kavakos, at Barbican Hall in London
  • First BSO performance: March 3, 2022, Andris Nelsons conducting, soloist Leonidas Kavakos
  • Approximate duration: 27 minutes

The score of the Violin Concerto No. 2 calls for 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (4 players recommended: 1. xylophone, crotales, bass marimba, plate bell, 3 suspended cymbals, splash cymbal, tissue paper, fine and medium sandpaper, sandbox, flexatone, maracas, medium and large snare drums; 2. glockenspiel, tubular bells, crotales, plate bells, triangle, suspended cymbal, splash cymbal, fine and medium sandpaper, maracas, bongo; 3. vibraphone, tubular bells, gongs, 2 suspended cymbals, small and large tam-tams, tambourine, guiro, tissue paper, 4 tom-toms, bass drum; 4. vibraphone, tubular bells, crotales, plate bells, cencerros (cowbells), gongs, suspended cymbals, 4 tam-tams, guiro, tambourine, mark tree, tissue paper, snare drum, tom-tom, bass drum), harp, piano/celesta, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses).

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Unsuk Chin was taught to read music by her father. Her first instrument was the piano, and she aspired to be a concert pianist before focusing on composition at the National University of Seoul, where she studied with Sukhi Kang. Chin followed the example of the Kang’s teacher, the eminent Korean composer Isang Yun, in deciding to further her studies in Germany, where she worked with György Ligeti.

Ligeti’s example suggested to Chin the unbridled use of any number of musical styles to achieve her expressive aims, including non-Western music, as well as delight in the intricacies and puzzles of composition. The older composer’s preoccupation with Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” stories infected Chin as well, leading eventually to her extraordinary English-language Acrostic-Wordplay. Her Alice in Wonderland, also in English, was premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007. Chin also worked intensively at the electronic music studio at the Technical University of Berlin, an experience that continues to affect her treatment of acoustic instruments. Her Xi (2000) for ensemble and electronics won the Bourges International Competition for Electroacoustic Music. Her work has been commissioned by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the London, Berlin, and Los Angeles philharmonics, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Kronos Quartet, London Sinfonietta, and Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin, where she was composer-in-residence. She was also composer-in-residence with the Seoul Philharmonic. The Boston Symphony Orchestra co-commissioned her orchestra piece Mannequin and gave the American premiere in November 2015, Ken-David Masur conducting. In 2011 the BSO, soloist Renaud Capuçon, and conductor Susanna Mälkki gave the American premiere of her Cello Concerto. At Tanglewood in 2022 the BSO performs her short 2020 orchestra work subito con forza (“suddenly, with force”), a Royal Concertgebouw commission. She received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for her Violin Concerto in 2004.

Although Chin has rarely explicitly drawn on Eastern music in her compositions, several works suggest an interest in East Asian culture as a source of musical inspiration. Chin wrote Šu, a concerto for the Chinese sheng and orchestra, for the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and the sheng master Wu Wei. Her Rocaná for orchestra takes its title from the Sanskrit (“room of light”), and Korean dramatic music was the impetus for the first movement of the Cello Concerto.

Unsuk Chin’s works are characterized by brilliant surface activity, textures of highly active individual parts, and the use of unusual combinations of instruments and extended playing techniques to create unique, pungent sounds. Her interest in the spectral harmonic makeup of sound and use of microtones results in an ethereal, otherworldly kind of effect, used in conjunction with a broader harmonic palette. These sounds are incorporated into a musical architecture with a sure sense of narrative and expressive effect. Repetition and recurrence are also part of Chin’s approach.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 is in a single movement but moves fairly regularly between sections of slower music (with the soloist playing multi-stops—more than one note at once) and quicker music, typically arpeggios, short, overlapping scale fragments, and quick, staccato groups. As the composer describes in her comments on the concerto, everything stems from the solo violin’s opening gestures, a multidimensional motif consisting of a definite, strongly sounded pair of notes with a highlight of a harmonic arpeggio, like light reflecting from a solid object. As the violin moves continually into new and ever more virtuosic territory, the orchestra follows, amplifying and transforming the soloist’s music in sheets and waves of sound. The orchestral environment begins with subtle, tissue-paper wafts and surges occasionally in growling walls of winds, brass, and strings, but is subtle, transparent, and imaginative throughout.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.

Unsuk Chin on her Violin Concerto No. 2, Scherben der Stille

With my Violin Concerto No. 2, titled Scherben der Stille (“Shards of Silence”), I decided to break my “principle” of writing only one concerto for an instrument. Given that there is such a great history with symphonic repertoire, it is always a challenge for a contemporary composer to try to add something to a genre that is new and yet in a way that is idiomatic for the ingenious 19th-century invention, the symphony orchestra. Besides, I want to write for many other instruments, ensembles, and setups, and every new project requires ample research time. To provide a slightly far-fetched comparison, Glenn Gould once remarked that he only records a piece once but decided to make an exception with the Goldberg Variations, his first and last recording; both are entirely different, but equally brilliant, which is fascinating.

I decided to break with this “principle” because of my encounter with Leonidas Kavakos’s unique musicianship and artistic personality, which resulted in new ideas on tackling this genre’s challenges. Therefore, this work is very different from my First Violin Concerto, which I composed twenty years ago. It also reflects the manifold new experiences I have had with this instrument since then, especially and most lately in Gran Cadenza, a violin duo commissioned by and written for Anne-Sophie Mutter. Nevertheless, it is very different from all the other music I have written for the violin, whether in soloistic function or as part of an ensemble.

My Violin Concerto No. 2 is a subjective portrait of and a dialogue with Leonidas Kavakos’s musicianship, which is burningly intense, and at the same time, impeccable and completely focused.

It is cast in one movement: the solo violin part forms the foundation of the whole work; the soloist triggers all of the orchestra’s actions and impulses. The work also features a composed solo cadenza that is very virtuosic.

The music is rich in contrast: the musical fabric emerges from utter silence but—hence the title of the work—juxtaposed seamlessly with rough edges, tonal shards and incisive outbursts from which new shapes appear.

A small motivic cell of five musical notes (or, to be more precise, two notes embellished by three natural harmonics) that soon turns into a line, a phrase, forms the creative nucleus of this piece, and it appears all over, in a variety of shapes and characters. The orchestra joins the soloist inconspicuously, starting from the almost imperceptible rustle of the beginning. Together with the soloist’s actions, it results in delicate, iridescent soundscapes, the music being on the verge between emergence and decay. These minimal moves already catalyze many of the upcoming developments. But soon, the orchestra appears with more angular textures, and the motivic proto-cell turns into a manifold of shapes: occasionally resembling a delicate song, then morphing into ritual-like repetitive pulsations, and, towards the end of the piece into “beats” that have a scream-like character. These changes sometimes happen with more fluent transitions and, more often, unexpected turns and even harsh contrasts.

Structurally speaking, Violin Concerto No. 2 consists of different sections that merge seamlessly: the grand form of the work resembles a labyrinth.

Unsuk Chin, © 2021