Inspired to Break the Rules

Composer Unsuk Chin’s first Violin Concerto was hailed as ‘the first masterpiece of the new century’, so the excitement about her new work is immense. Interviewer James Drury spoke to the composer about what inspired her new piece.

Unsuk Chin's world premiere will be performed by Leonidas Kakavos conducted by Sir Simon Rattle on Thursday 6 January at the Barbican and the concert will be available to watch live on Medici TV

Musical Background

Born in Seoul, Unsuk Chin studied under György Ligeti and she has won fans the world over, including Sir Simon Rattle, the LA Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Working across genres from electronic to classical, vocal, orchestral and ensemble works, her musical style is modern in language, but lyrical and non-doctrinaire in communicative power. She was the subject of a Total Immersion Day at the Barbican in 2011. The New Year brings the premiere of her second Violin Concerto and marks the start of her five-year tenure as Artistic Director of the Tongyeong International Festival in South Korea.

You can learn more about Unsuk Chin and her music in this mini-documentary:

Composing the Rules

Chin has a principle of only writing one concerto per instrument. ‘I feel that every new work should ideally have a raison d’etre,’ explains the Berlin-based musician. ‘Given that there is such a great history with symphonic repertoire, it is always a challenge for a contemporary composer to try to add something to it that is new and yet in a way that is idiomatic for the ingenious 19th-century invention called a symphony orchestra. Besides, I want to write for many other instruments, ensembles, and set-ups, and every new project requires ample research time. To provide a slightly far-fetched comparison, the pianist Glenn Gould once remarked that he would only record a piece once, but decided to make an exception with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, his first and last recording; both recordings are entirely different, but equally brilliant, which is fascinating.'

SSR x Unsuk Chin
Sir Simon Rattle and Barbara Hannigan applaud Unsuk Chin at the world premiere of Le Silence des Sirènes in 2014. © Priska Ketterer/Lucerne Festival. 

Inspiring Encounters

So what – having written a modern classic for violin and orchestra 20 years ago – could have spurred her to break this tenet?

It was her encounter with violinist Leonidas Kavakos’s ‘unique musicianship and artistic personality. I got new ideas for how to tackle the challenges of this genre.’ She adds: ‘His musicianship is burningly intense, and at the same time, impeccable and completely focused. When asked whether one might notice similarities between her first Violin Concerto and this one Chin responds 'this work is very different from my first Violin Concerto, which I composed 20 years ago. It also reflects the manifold new experiences I have had with this instrument since then, especially and most lately in Gran Cadenza, a violin duo commissioned by and written for Anne-Sophie Mutter. Nevertheless, it is very different from all the other music I have written for the violin, whether in soloistic function or as part of an ensemble.'

Kavakos and the LSO: Call and Response

Violin Concerto No 2, co-commissioned by the LSO, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, premieres with soloist Leonidas Kavakos under Sir Simon Rattle at the Barbican on 6 January 2022, and is cast in one movement. Chin says ‘The soloist leads throughout the work, triggering the orchestra’s actions and impulses. The music is rich in contrast: the musical fabric emerges from utter silence but juxtaposed seamlessly with rough edges and incisive outbursts – hence why it’s called Shards of Silence.’

Thursday 6 January 7pm, Barbican

Unsuk Chin Violin Concerto No 2, ‘Scherben der Stille’ (world premiere)*
Jean Sibelius Symphony No 7
Béla Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin – Suite

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Leonidas Kavakos violin
London Symphony Orchestra

* Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with the support of the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation.

Tickets: £60 £48 £35 £24 £18

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