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Peter Eötvös writes DoReMi for violinist Midori

For years he was a conductor who also composed, but after operas such as Le balcon and Angels in America Hungarian Peter Eötvös (1944) is now a composer who also conducts. On Friday 21 February, he leads the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn in the Dutch premiere of his Violin Concerto No 2, DoReMi, which he composed in 2012 for Japanese violinist Midori. - I spoke to him last week.

The concert in Vredenburg's broadcast series The Friday is part of a series of celebrations around Eötvös' 70th birthday. He also presents works by his former teacher Zoltan Kodály and by Bela Bartók, whom he once described as "my spiritual father". The sparkling and accessible DoReMi has been performed many times after its premiere in Los Angeles, but can thus only now be heard for the first time in the Netherlands. It is important to travel to Utrecht for this, as the repeat concert on Sunday 23 February at the Amsterdam Concert Hall this very work is conspicuous by its absence.

Did you already know Midori when she asked you to write a violin concerto for her?

Only hearsay. Her request surprised me and I have no idea why she chose me in particular. She wanted a new composition to mark her 30th anniversary as a concert violinist. And although we have met often over the past two years, I still don't dare inquire about this. She is very shy and I just feel that I would be too close to her with such a question.

What was your first reaction when she approached you?

When she wrote to me, I immediately requested information from her impresario and that is how I discovered that she started giving concerts at a very young age, she is a real child prodigy. Coincidentally, a few weeks after her letter, she gave a concert in Budapest, together with a pianist. The programme included sonatas by Beethoven and Janácek, among others, and I was impressed by her playing. She is extremely gifted and it was immediately clear to me that I would like to write a piece for her.

The title DoReMi seems to be a wordplay on her name Midori

It is indeed a play on words that immediately came to my mind. But, again typical of her reticence: we never talked about that. With Japanese you have to be careful, they have a very different culture and you simply don't know what you bring about as a European barbarian. There is something secretive and mysterious about that that attracts me a lot. That title was for me Spielerei and I just hope she doesn't see him as hurtful.  

At first it seemed like an incredibly simple idea to me, after all, do-re-mi are the first three notes of our tonal scale, but the theme turned out to be less obvious than I thought. Research by Hungarian musicologist Ernö Lendvai showed that those three notes have a different function in different cultures. In the West, a piece often ends on re-mi-do, but in the East it often concludes with the formula mi-do-re, making the re so becomes the main note. When I discovered that, I knew I was on the right track: Midori is from the East, I am an Eastern European myself, and we both work in the West.

How did you deploy the theme?

I returned to my childhood, so to speak, and worked on this piece with immense pleasure. The concert opens with three triangles, playing the theme mi-do-re. This is followed by the strings and then the winds, like blocks that you stack on top of and next to each other. It's amazing how much you can do with three notes. Take the position of the re. Which is sandwiched between the do and the mi and wants to 'free' itself from this captivity. Through the do raising a semitone and the mi down a half, it is trapped even more firmly and you get a dissonant consonance, cis-d-es. But if I do the opposite and the do down a semitone and the mi half a raise, it actually creates a lot of space and the re 'liberated'.

These are games that I enjoy and are easy for the audience to follow, it's a witty piece. Take also the role of the harp. I have tuned it a quarter tone 'too high', so the instrument acts as a jammer that threatens the pure sound world of do-re-mi. The violinist has to hold his own against this. Another joke is in the third movement: the violin plays a solo cadenza that must inevitably end on a low F, a note that, however, is not on the instrument. Therefore, I let the viola duet with the violin. It is a piece of pure chamber music, which is not conducted. After the premiere in Los Angeles, I extended that part because people liked it so much.

Midori calls the piece rhapsodic, how do you see it yourself?

The concert is definitely rhapsodic in form, different ideas follow each other and there are multiple images. It's like with a Chagall painting: you see a village, a couple making love, an inn, and at the same time an animal flies through the air. Similarly, my concert has many faces and developments; it is never static, but always building up or winding down. With small building blocks, I have created a piece of about 20 minutes, without repetitions. People invariably react enthusiastically. When I DoReMi recently conducted himself for the first time, the only criticism consisted of asking me not to repeat some excerpts.

I may offer readers of this blog a discount on the concert on 21 February in De Vrijdag at Vredenburg: instead of €30, you will pay only €22.50. To do so, send an e-mail to kassa@vredenburg.nl Subject to 'Blog Culture Press' and your tickets will be available at the box office in due course..

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Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: https://www.boekenbestellen.nl/boek/een-os-op-het-dak/9789012345675 In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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