Plenty of violinists have evoked the sounds of other instruments: The late Yehudi Menuhin matched the sitar in his collaborations with Ravi Shankar. Mark O’Connor has brought Appalachian fiddling into orchestra settings. This week, the young violinist Kristin Lee tries something more unusual: premiering a new piece by the composer Vivian Fung that emulates the sounds of the gamelan, the musical ensemble from Indonesia known for its gently chiming percussive sounds.
The gamelan has been a source of fascination for various composers of the last century, including Claude Debussy, Benjamin Britten and Lou Harrison, but few have tried to fuse its sounds with those of the solo violin.
The genesis of Fung’s Violin Concerto dates back a couple years, when Lee was a Master’s student in Fung’s music theory course at Juilliard. After the teacher brought a visiting Balinese gamelan to her class one day in 2009, Lee was mesmerized. “I thought this was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever heard and seen,” said Lee, 25, who studied with Itzhak Perlman and Donald Weilerstein. “I was completely hooked and obsessed.” Soon after, Lee, the concertmaster of the Metropolis Ensemble, proposed a new concerto that would evoke gamelan textures.
In 2010, Lee accompanied Fung on a week-long trip to Bali, wherein the latter was touring as a member of Gamelan Dharmaswana (Fung first went to the Pacific island nation in 2004 as part of a fellowship organized by the UCLA Center for Intercultural Studies and it has been a large part of her work ever since). A concerto soon began to take shape, incorporating the interlocking rhythms, odd meters and a quote from a Javanese folksong. The violin, being a more linear instrument, doesn’t directly imitate the gamelan as much as it joins the party, weaving in and out like a dashing interloper (watch the cadenza below).
Lee and the Metropolis Ensemble recently recorded the Concerto for Naxos, with a release scheduled for 2012. The Korean-born violinist also performs as a member of the Chamber Music Society Two at Lincoln Center, tours as a soloist and teaches violin at Queens College.
“With Kristin because we have this special bond as far as friends and musically, I think she adjusted her sound to really embody the drive that it takes for this concerto,” said Fung. “She has the folky, earthy sound that you get with a lot of the folk instruments. It’s not a traditional Bach sound. It’s a rustic sound.”
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise
Ysaye: Sonata No. 4, First Movement:
Vivian Fung: Violin Concerto (Cadenza)