Next week the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra will give world premiere performances of a new violin concerto by Nashville composer Christopher Farrell on the program of their upcoming “Royal Coronation” concerts on December 6 & December 11. Among Nashville’s (now several) volunteer community orchestras, the NPO is the most well-established and performs the most demanding and developed series of concerts each year. These performances will be led by NPO Music Director Christopher Norton and feature NPO Concertmaster Jessica Blackwell as soloist, for whom Farrell wrote the concerto.
Both Chris and Jessica are longstanding members of the Nashville Symphony. I first met them both years ago when I was directing Music City Youth Orchestra: Jessica led sectional rehearsals for our violinists, and Chris taught private lessons to some of our students. I’ve had the great pleasure of collaborating with them on a number of projects here at the symphony over the last couple of years, and was excited to get together with them to talk about the new concerto.
* * *
Chris Farrell received a Bachelor of Music from the University of North Texas and a Master of Music degree from Indiana University. He has been a violist with the Nashville Symphony since 1999, and he is also a member of ALIAS, Nashville’s award-winning chamber ensemble. ALIAS has performed several of his chamber compositions on their concerts in recent years and Chris has performed on ALIAS’s recordings as well. In 2015, Chris was awarded a Bonnaroo Works/Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee Grant by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission for the creation and recording of Needle and Thread, Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp. Several of his compositions have also been presented on programs of the Nashville Symphony OnStage and OffStage chamber music series.
Jessica Blackwell received her Bachelor of Music in Performance in 2006 at Rice University, and a Master’s degree in Performance/Pedagogy in 2008 and a Graduate Performance Diploma in 2009 at The Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University. She has played with several orchestras including New World, Baltimore, San Antonio, Annapolis and the Symphony of Southeast Texas, where she served as acting concertmaster.
Jessica joined the Nashville Symphony in 2009. She also serves as a co-concertmaster for the Gateway Chamber Orchestra and the Nashville Philharmonic, and is a frequent guest performer with ALIAS Chamber Ensemble. She continues to participate as participant or guest artist at engagements and festivals around the country and has been a member of the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra for the past six summers.
* * *
I asked Chris and Jessica about how they began making music together outside of their work as members of the Nashville Symphony.
Chis Farrell first started composing in college. “I wrote a couple of string quartets that were based on TV show themes as a joke, but it wasn’t until about eight years ago that I started to try to harness that activity for good rather than for just for jest. I have a really great string quartet that combines the theme from Gilligan’s Island with the Pachelbel Canon and the Beethoven Serioso quartet (No. 11, Opus 95). All three together! And then there is a Passacaglia and Fugue on the theme to Bonanza! Unfortunately this quartet remains incomplete as I got bogged down in the double fugue that I started on that one.”
“I had written a couple of string quartets,” said Chris, “and I asked Jessica if she would play one – she had come to a couple of performances and heard them. This was about three years ago. Last year, we did an OffStage performance where we premiered a new quartet that I had written, and Jessica played in that. And somewhere along the line she asked me to write a concerto.”
“I had heard Chris’s music at ALIAS concerts before and just absolutely adored it. ” said Jessica.
This is the first piece for orchestra that he has written.
“It started out that I was just going to write for violin and string orchestra, but Jessica talked me into including winds in the orchestration.” said Chris. “I started in late December of last year, and I finished it around the beginning of August.”
“Not only did I twist his arm to write a concerto with orchestra, then after he did that, I asked him to write a piano reduction!” said Jessica. “So he did that, which he said was one of the most challenging things he had to do.”
Jessica performed the piano and violin version of the concerto on her faculty recital at Blair this past September with pianist Megan Gale. Jessica and Megan repeated this performance last week on WPLN’s Live in Studio C, which you can listen to here.
The concerto is orchestrated for strings with flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. “This version is what we are playing with NPO. In four days!” said Jessica. Chris has also adapted the full orchestration to a chamber version with one player per part, which will be performed on the Nashville Symphony’s free OnStage chamber music series on April 12, 2017.
Chris described the orchestration: “Because I still think in terms of small ensemble, I thought of it as a string quartet that had an extended low end (with the bass), and then the four winds were like another quartet, basically. Their colors were different … it’s more like an extension of a chamber ensemble sound, without any percussion. I’m just changing colors by using winds versus strings.”
“It has three movements and is set up like a traditional concerto with a fast movement, a slow second movement, and then a fast final movement.”
“It’s funny that you say the first movement is fast.” said Jessica. “That’s been a point of – well not contention, but discussion – since the inception of the piece. When I first learned it he gave me a tempo marking of like, 104, but I practiced it at like 72, or 80. Then I brought it in and he heard it and he said ‘well I just kind of heard it a little bit faster’. It’s so funny because I had practiced it so much at that slower tempo that I couldn’t get it out of my head! And so to play it at the tempo he suggested after I practiced it that way sounded so wrong to me, even though I get why he made it that tempo. So every time I’ve performed it now, at Blair and at the NPO it’s come up! I think we have different concepts of what it’s about.”
“This is an experience I haven’t had as a composer until now.” said Chris. “Most of the time I’ve written things that I’ve been involved in, that I’ve played in. I’ve made compromises when I’ve rehearsed those pieces. So I have to accept that – I’m done with it, and I’ve given it to someone else. It’s their work of art now too.”
“Chris’s strong suit is writing good melodies, good melodic lines that one can hold onto and leave the concert humming, which you don’t find with many 21st century composers.” Jessica said. “And they’re not cheesy melodies! They’re really beautiful, and that’s a gift, and that’s why I love his music.”
“I don’t know how I ended up writing a violin concerto before I wrote something for viola – which I haven’t really done yet – I don’t know!” said Chris. “But Jess is very persuasive, and she’s a great player and a great friend, and I wanted to do something for her.”
* * *
I caught a moment backstage with Chris Norton yesterday – in addition to his role as the Nashville Philharmonic’s music director, Dr. Norton is Professor of Music and Director of Percussion Studies at Belmont University, often plays percussion with the symphony, and has conducted our orchestra several times over the years as well – he was playing timpani with us on our Pied Piper family concert Saturday morning.
He spoke of the sense that the process of preparing this premiere has been “all in the family”. Jessica volunteers her time as concertmaster with the NPO for half of each year (Denise Baker, another symphony musician, is the volunteer concertmaster the other half of the year) and he asks the concertmasters to choose a work each year that will feature them as soloist. Jessica chose the new concerto we will hear this week. Chris Norton is also a founding member of ALIAS, and his wife Leslie is the symphony’s principal horn. He spoke with deep affection and enthusiasm of his relationship with these musicians, and the community he feels they all belong to.
“The Nashville Philharmonic community Orchestra is honored to give the orchestral premiere of Chris Farrell’s new violin concerto, and it’s a delight to collaborate with Chris and soloist Jessica Blackwell. They’re wonderful musicians with generous spirits, and I’ve always held them in highest esteem. I feel the work captures the soul of the two of them: Jessica always performs from a very deep place, connecting the audience to the heart of the music…and Chris has written the perfect vehicle for such expression, drawing from his breadth of experience as an orchestral and chamber musician, then fashioning repertoire that influenced him into his own unique voice. It’s a remarkable work, and the musicians of the Orchestra are really enjoying the collaboration.”
~ Christopher Norton
Music Director, Nashville Philharmonic
* * *
The Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Christopher Norton will perform the world premiere of Chris Farrell’s Violin Concerto with Chamber Orchestra on their upcoming program “Royal Coronation” also featuring music by Beethoven, Borodin, Hubert Parry, Jeff Tyzik, Chuck Mangione, Leroy Anderson, and more:
Tuesday, December 6, 2016 at 7:30 pm
Iglesia de Dios Hispana de Nashville
3030 Dickerson Pike, Nashville, Tennessee 37207
Saturday, December 11, 2016 at 7 pm
68 Music Square East, Nashville, Tennessee 37203
Both concerts are FREE. For more information visit Upcoming Programs on the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra website.