Seattle Symphony Performs the World Premiere of Enrico Chapela’s Concerto for Electric Violin and Orchestra, Upstaging “Ravel/Debussy”
By S.E. Barcus
November 3, 2022
Mexico City composer Enrico Chapela had a world premiere tonight in Seattle of his new electric violin concerto, Antiphaser. What is that, you ask? Some sort of guitar pedal, (or anti-pedal)? Or was CCM Chapela going to explore the phasing techniques of Steve Reich? No! It was a tone poem about being a “Lunarian,” a person on the moon, seeing a lunar eclipse from that perspective. Where the Earthlings see their planet’s shadow on the moon, the Lunarians would see a solar eclipse, a black Earth with a rim of fire of sunsets and sunrises surrounding it…. Antiphaser tries to imagine, in sound, what that spectacular experience might be like. … (Really? Is Chapela a super-duper sci-fi fan? … Or is he messing with us?! Maybe there was some Reich in there that I missed!)
Don’t know who Enrico Chapela is? Check this out. He seems like the bomb, yo! (Just don’t spray paint ‘the bomb’ on a truck in downtown Seattle….) Check out this interview and performance of his Li Po. Really wonderful. As was his soloist, the super talented violinst, Pekka Kuusisto. Really captured the freakiness of the electric violin with his highly gestured playing. Check out this brief promo of the piece on Chapeka’s FB page for a fun sample. Check. Check. Check.
Anyhoo — the piece begins – (like Ravel’s La valse just before it, tonight) – low and creepy, with tremulous orchestral strings, then immediately — enter soloist, who soon turns his odd hollow metal violin into a trill, but overall starts the night with the sonority of a ‘normal’ violin. Then bouncy, quick rhythms, like we’re running from something…. And by the 2nd minute, a percussion beat seems to signal for a foot pedal to be pressed – and our violin is now briefly showing you its possibilities, flirting with a metallic, hardcore rock sound, before quickly being taken over immediately by a cinematic-feeling orchestra, very much sounding like John Adams.
Soon, though, Kuusisto is letting loose with a torrent of various sounds — now hitting the strings with his bow, Jimmy Page style, and starting in with the loops, playing with himself from moments beforehand. (Laurie Anderson would love this piece.) By about the 4th minute, a wah wah pedal sound becomes unmistakable, before segueing into a freaky scratchy metallic sound, once again. This is a virtuoso piece that seems to catalogue and highlight all of the possibilities of the electric violin, while still staying fun and cool, staying musical, moving with, into, and out of the full orchestra. (And with equal dynamics, of the whole ensemble, too. It must be a bear trying to make sure an amplified instrument is playing together well within a larger acoustic ensemble – getting the mix just right. The sound engineering was perfect….)
About a third of the way into the piece, we’re back to the looping, the best of the piece of that technique. By himself, Kuusisto is playing three different voices. The audience might have thought violins back in the orchestra were also playing. Nope. Nice. (One the best “rock” versions of looping I can think of is “Give Up the Ghost” by Radiohead, with both Jonny Greenwood and Thom York looping their 2 voices over and over, becoming by themselves almost a full band. Chapela and Kuusisto captured that type of wonderment — and similar beauty — several times tonight with this technological feature.) There was at least one moment (probably more), a quieter moment, where it seemed Chapela (as “sound engineer”) got to “play” some of the music, as well, turning knobs rhythmically to get the vibrato/echo out of the violin….
Then, almost halfway through the piece, was the most memorable part – where the soloist and orchestra slid up and down their strings, into and out of each other. An interplay that was itself some form of phasing, and slightly eerie, and emotionally luscious. After this, more explorations of the various electric timbres this new instrument could make. To be honest, at times – rarely – it could be slightly cheesy, like something Yes-sy-prog-rock or Dr. Who-ish, but for the most part, creepy or beautiful or just plain interesting. Getting nearer the end, things evolve into a macabre-like freaky doll-sounding dance, like something out of a Guillermo del Toro movie.
Pekka Kuusisto is no relation to Esa-Pekka Salonen — so I’m guessing Pekka’s a common Finnish name. While he’s kind of red-headed-Weasleyish in the SS promo, he was groovy-all-black-suit-stylin’ tonight (similar to the kind of suit his own countryman, Esa-Pekka, often wears…). I liked his expressions throughout – big facial gestures — and the tenacity he shows when picking at the strings, when creating Chapela’s loops, playing against himself, off beat. He is intense and dead serious, yet somehow such a fun violinist to watch!
It is strange having a soloist get to be able to essentially change instruments with the push of a button, while the orchestra is trapped with their ~17th century toys…. Sometimes it was just weird – beautiful and fitting together really seamlessly, to Chapela’s credit — but still sometimes kinda weird, nonetheless. Like being on some yesteryear Victorian fox hunt, where everyone’s on horses, with dogs yapping — but then, there’s this one dude who has a drone with a machine gun. Just … weird. Then again: weird is good. It made the night groovy and different.
One wonders what will happen when – and it’s only a matter of time – someone writes a piece, and it is performed – where ALL of the players of an orchestra are using electric instruments, and can change their sonority/timbre variables electrically/digitally at any time. The amount of possibilities in a traditional orchestra is already essentially infinite. This would … take infinity to eleven? Oh, if only to live another 100 years to experience this! (“You! Red-haired flutist – hit the wah wah on the 3rd beat! … Now you – Steven-Pinker-looking cellist – more phaser pedal!”)
Guest conductor Andrew Litton did a great job blending our soloist into the orchestra and back again, on what seemed little notice, due to some visa-issue with the original conductor. Hey – I’ll take Litton anyday – he’s worked in Bournemouth, one of my favorite cities (can you say Jane Goodall and Wallace and Gromit?). And kudos yet again to Seattle Symphony for commissioning a world premiere by a contemporary classical composer. Antiphaser‘s often-heart-poundingly fast rhythms and near-metalcore sounds made me feel more like I was ‘running and running to catch up with the sun’ rather than sitting down watching some celestial Lunarian/solar fireworks display, but whatever this freaky goodness was tonight, if you’re in Seattle this weekend, you’d be a damn fool to miss experiencing it live at Benaroya Hall. …
Oh, yeah, and there’s really good music by some old guys named “Ravel” and “Debussy,” too. 😊