Charles-Marie Widor William Thomas McKinley Gardner Read Vittorio Rieti Ezra Sims

William Thomas McKinley

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1995)


For its first few minutes, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra presents us with a highly rhythmic theme reminiscent of a nineteenth century European dance in an unusual 12/8 time. Subtitled "Winter," this movement features spikes of percussion as intricate as icicles. While not a programmatic piece in the same way as Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral"), the clashing symbols and the highly regular tempo may remind listeners of someone trudging with determination through a storm. The lyrical cadenza that begins around 5:00 (and concludes the movement) provides a transition from the tumult. The pizzicato even sounds like melting droplets. The second movement, "Spring," features the same degree of use and respect for percussion as Bela Bartok employs in his Violin Concerto No. 2. The violin's rapid fuoco figures convey a sense of urgency and tension. Snare drums and brushes contribute to the fiery pace, as does a sudden burst of orchestra dissonance. Could this be the violent cycle of spring's rebirth? The music uses so many devices that it's fruitless to force it into one conceptual or emotional scenario. The dialogs between the soloist and the orchestra are alternately polarized and interactive. Distinct thematic ideas and fresh textures abound, like the staccato dialog with the orchestra at 6:20, one that features impish pizzicatos. The movement ends diminuendo and "Summer" gracefully appears. More than any other device, McKinley's seamless transitions between movements evoke the gradual changing of the seasons. Before "Summer's" first minute ends, we are treated to a visit by an old friend, the theme from Porgy and Bess's "Summertime" by George Gershwin. Yet unlike Aaron Copland's famed quoting of Shaker songs, McKinley's quote never takes over the original melody. Rather, it appears sporadically throughout the movement like a rare breeze on a sweltering day. Sometimes this musical "weather" changes abruptly. One melancholic theme becomes agitated, only to sink back into melancholy. This movement's concluding violin solo winds a spring of tension, gives us a final whiff of "Summertime," and sprints into "Autumn." This agitated presto opening establishes a rhythmic and decisive mood, but soon the tempo slows down. There is an agitated dialog with strings that swings into a delightful imitation. At 1:50, the violin interrupts a martial-sounding section then terminates it with a short dramatic solo. Soon a sardonic two-note dialog ensues between the soloist and other strings. As the coda ensues, the violin demonically mocks the orchestra using extreme high register. In the last few seconds McKinley tantalizingly withholds the conclusion, then ends the piece with a satisfying tutti.

—Peter Bates



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