When violinist Colin Jacobsen established himself as a key component of no fewer than three genre-defying groups – he is a founding member of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the chamber orchestra the Knights, and has been a touring member of Yo-Yo Ma's cross-cultural Silk Road Ensemble since its beginning – he turned to composition as an additional creative outlet. A graduate of the Juilliard School, Jacobsen has distinguished himself as chamber musician, soloist and composer since the early 2000s, and continues to forge a creative, multi-branching path in the current contemporary classical scene.
The son of professional musicians, Jacobsen was exposed to the classical repertoire from an early age; his family would hold "Schubertiades" at home, performing chamber music among friends. "I fell in love with the community and intimacy of that," he says. "It was natural that when my brother and I were getting out of school we had this community of friends with whom we grew up playing music in the living room."
His younger brother and lifelong collaborator is Orlando Philharmonic music director Eric Jacobsen, who invited Colin to serve as soloist for a program dubbed The Birds this Monday. It will be a curiously varied concert, with a selection of music evocative of the avian world.
Colin's appearance is the latest in Eric's trend, since taking the reins of the Phil, of bringing to town or performing music by the brothers' past collaborators, including Wu Man (from the Silk Road Ensemble), Gabriel Kahane, and more recently Lisa Bielawa and Emmanuel Ax. Monday's concert will showcase two facets of Colin's musicianship: the soloist and the composer.
Primarily known as a chamber musician, Jacobsen is no stranger to the solo spotlight; he made his debut at age 11 at the New Hampshire Music Festival, playing the Mendelssohn concerto. At 14 he appeared as soloist with the New York Philharmonic, performing the Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch. He first tackled the Beethoven Violin Concerto – the centerpiece of Monday's program at the Plaza Live – in 2000, with the Annapolis Symphony.
Though non-programmatic, the concerto fits the spirit of the evening's theme: Birds represent the transcendence of the body in a spiritual sense, according to Jacobsen. "The Beethoven [piece] has the violin in a similar kind of role," he says.
Following his spirit of innovation and long endeavor to make "classical" music contemporary and relevant (a feature of all three ensembles with whom he plays), Jacobsen very recently composed original cadenzas for the first and third movements, which Beethoven left open. "I love the fact that with the cadenza a soloist gets to expand upon and reflect on the themes," he says. His creative process involved digesting Beethoven's themes and turning them inside-out, so as to make the piece his own. This will be his first time playing it with Eric, and playing it with original cadenzas.
Showcasing his composition skills, the Orlando Phil and both Jacobsens will perform Colin's Ascending Bird, a poetic tale of a bird's fateful attempt to reach the sun. Performed with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House in 2011, the piece resulted from collaboration with fellow Silk Road Ensemble member Siamak Aghaei.
Jacobsen calls Aghaei, who collects folk melodies from all over his native Iran, a "modern-day Bartók." Aghaei was attracted to a Persian folk melody played on a bird-bone flute, one of the oldest instruments known. When he showed Jacobsen a recording of the ancient melody (dating from the Zoroastrian period), they took it and added layers and harmonic depth to it.
Composed in 2004, Ascending Bird has two sections. The introduction consists of original material, while the rhythmic part is constructed from "a skeleton of the melody," Jacobsen says. The piece has a strong rhythmic drive and is suffused with a richly exotic flavor; the classical and world-music crossover is tantalizing all through the climax, via an accented rhythmic idea reminiscent of the "Confutatis" segment from Mozart's Requiem.
The Orlando Phil will perform Jacobsen's own arrangement for orchestra, originally made in 2011 for the Knights.
"I don't usually come with a pre-set structure; it is more an organic process of improvising or making sketches, then growing something out of them," says Jacobsen. Though he briefly tried his hand at composition in high school, he focused solely on the craft of violin playing until Ascending Bird opened the gateway. Original pieces – like Brooklesca, performed in 2010 at the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, and Achilles' Heel – have elevated Brooklyn Rider to an authoritative presence in the evolution of the genre. "There's a spark that I'm intrigued by," he says, "whether it's a non-Western sound, or a technique of the violin, that gets me going."
"I just wanted to keep widening what the possibilities were for me, and not just do one thing," he says. "I didn't want to be in a competitive place [as an exclusive soloist], but to create a way for myself that was unique unto itself."
The other birdsong-inspired pieces in the program are Ralph Vaughan Williams' sublime The Lark Ascending, which the soloist is performing with an orchestra for the first time, and Ottorino Respighi's suite for orchestra Gli uccelli.
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