The violin virtuoso has been an important figure in Western art music for centuries. Over these centuries the nature of virtuosity has evolved, along with the techniques needed to achieve it. What a 21st century violin virtuoso sounds like is on display on David Bowlin’s Bird as Prophet.
Bowlin, Director of String Studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, is an adept interpreter of new music and a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, one of the most esteemed new music groups in the world. The works on Bird as Prophet bring out both his versatility and lyricism in equal measure.
Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronism (1988) for violin and tape uses discreet electronic sounds to supplement a central focus on the violin. While the latter is indeed synched with the tape it could stand on its own as an example of late Modernist virtuosity: a technical challenge played out in a slightly fragmented arc of double stops, rapid runs into the extreme upper register, and mood-changing, introspective interludes.
Under a Tree, an Udātta (2016) by Du Yun, like Bowlin a founder of ICE, is another piece for fixed media and violin. Under a Tree is anchored on a recording of Vedic chanting, which sets up an insistently rhythmic drone for the violin to play over. Bowlin’s line, which has some of the looseness of an improvisation, is an eclectic mélange of raga-like microtonal swoops, percussive strikes and long-held, widely-vibratoed tones. What the piece seems to say in part is that contemporary virtuosity isn’t solely a matter of technical mastery, but of being conversant with multiple musical traditions as well.
Bleu (2011), a composition for solo violin, is a mature work written by the late George Walker for his violinist son Gregory when the composer was nearly 90. It’s a beautiful, expressive piece that combines a warm romanticism with chromatic, Modernist lines; Bowlin plays it with great depth of feeling, as he does Martin Bresnick’s Bird as Prophet (1999), a piece for violin and piano (Tony Cho).
Bowlin has previously interpreted the music of Alexandra Karasyoanova-Hermentin, a Moscow-born composer/pianist of Russo-Bulgarian background currently living in Austria; he premiered her violin concerto Mahagoni, which she had written for him, in 2007. Here she contributes two pieces for small chamber ensembles. Kastena (2003) for violin and cello, the latter played by ICE’s Katinka Kleijn, is a tension-filled work that floats an energetic violin part over a cello performance that alternates between drones and abrupt, percussive interventions. Mari Mamo (2009), a trio work for violin, flute (Conor Nelson) and percussion (Ayano Kataoka), constructs melodies out of discontinuous tone colors and plays fruitfully on the contrast between staccato flute and tuned percussion on the one side, and long, floating violin tones on the other.