Jazz Violin Concerto Challenges Soloist and Orchestra, Blending Americana and Impressionism

***Since the time this was originally published,  the video below caught the attention of the U.S. State Department. Consequently Douglas Droste and I were honored to go to Ukraine at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy to present three concerts. For more on our trip, see here: http://christianhowes.com/2014/06/14/jazzorchestral-diplomacy-in-ukraine/

Growing up, I dreamed of soloing in front of orchestras, and at 16 I got to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. It’s hard to find something new on the standard solo pieces. After all, what’s left to play after Itzhak Perlman?

I’ve been seeking new, “crossover” repertoire that is compelling for years, and I am happy to report that I have found a keeper!

 

“Concerto for Jazz Violin” by Scott Routenberg

The video embedded here showcases our recent performance under Douglas Droste’s direction with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra of the “Concerto for Jazz Violin” by Scott Routenberg, a beautiful piece relevant to today’s symphonic audiences.


(I’d love to hear your take on this piece. Feel free to leave your comments and share this.)

With the vocabularies of Jazz, Americana, and classical impressionist music delicately balanced, my biggest challenge was to integrate improvisation throughout the piece, paying attention to (and sometimes ignoring) the written notes and “intentions” of the composer, while reflecting an authentic understanding of the nuances of all three genres. Some trial runs, and lots of conversations with Scott Routenberg, helped me to fine tune this performance with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra.

 

chbows

It was personally fulfilling to work on this project with my childhood friend and Suzuki violin buddy, conductor Douglas Droste. Doug’s background as a classical violinist combined with years of playing trumpet in band (not to mention the influence of his father Paul Droste, a longtime, highly respected band director at Ohio State University), helped him steer the groove of this piece, and I think the Muncie Symphony Orchestra pulled it off beautifully under his direction. I love the moment in the video where Doug catches me in a last minute switch to bring in the orchestra on the downbeat just in time following the solo in the second movement!

 

Thoughts from composer Scott Routenberg:

“If I quoted Ravel (in the second movement), I did not do so consciously, but out of a deep love for his orchestral music, especially the 2nd Suite from his ballet Dafnis et Chloe, which I used to listen to religiously every night before going to sleep when in college. The climactic swells in the 2nd movement of my concerto are loosely based on his textural and orchestral gestures. Other orchestral influences included Debussy, Respighi, and Copland’s open, “American” sound. The violinist who commissioned the piece, Chien Tan, specifically wanted fiddle influences and jazz improvisation fused together, so that is why I incorporated fiddle-like passages with chromaticism and idiomatic bebop-style “licks”. The fiddle lick that ends the first movement was inspired by jazz violinist Billy Contreras, who actually played that lick in a solo, and probably modified it for violin from a saxophone lick originally played by Michael Brecker.

“The unique element of the Jazz Violin Concerto is its incorporation of improvised passages that are seamlessly integrated with the rest of the piece. These sections are written with chord symbols in traditional jazz nomenclature.

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“It was not until I found the perfect soloist in jazz violinist Christian Howes that these improvised passages realized their full potential to redefine the energy and mood of the concerto with each unique performance. What’s more, Christian extemporizes several (unwritten) cadenzas with brilliant nods to contemporary jazz improvisation and the lost art of the classically improvised concerto cadenza, deftly weaving together melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic motives from the work in a new way at each performance.”

Says Christian, “Scott Routenberg is a rare musician with both the experience to play modern jazz piano on the highest level and the discipline to write elegant, long-form symphonic pieces.”

Douglas Droste is also a forward looking educator (currently orchestra director at Ball State University). We have teamed up to offer a residency program at schools called, “The Best of Both Worlds in your School Orchestra”, with an eye towards balancing curriculum with a mix of traditional and contemporary string teaching methods in the classroom. We presented the topic together in a joint presentation at the 2013 Midwest Band and Orchestra Conference in Chicago.

 

CH&DD

I felt that this piece needed to be played on an acoustic violin, but that it needed to be amplified. I’m really happy with the amplified acoustic violin sound in this recording, and the blend it helped us achieve.
The acoustic violin was amplified during this performance using the Yamaha VNP-1 pickup for acoustic violin. I run through a Boss-ME signal processor, a Jamman looper, and a Fishman loudbox amplifier supplied by the Electric Violin Shop I play D’Addario Zyex and Helicore strings.

Thanks for sharing this and leaving any comments below. We appreciate your feedback!

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