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News & Press

Thomas May Musical America

November 2018


November 13, 2018

SEATTLE—Making its U.S. premiere at the center of Seattle Symphony’s most recent program, Pascal Dusapin’s At Swim-Two-Birds (heard on November 8) immediately stood out as one of the most significant commissions in music director Ludovic Morlot’s tenure (ends this season).

Dusapin wrote this double concerto for violin and cello at the request of the wife-husband team Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley, who gave the world premiere with co-commissioning Radio Filharmonisch Orkest in Amsterdam in September 2017. But rather than yet another predicable take on the perennially popular concerto format, he has produced a substantial score that is uniquely designed and scored with a winning balance of sensuality and sophistication.

Morlot has been a major advocate for his compatriot. He was chief conductor at La Monnaie when that house commissioned Dusapin’s Kleist-inspired opera Penthesilea (though he relinquished his post there before it was staged in 2015), and he secured the first U.S. performance of Aufgang, a violin concerto premiered here by Renaud Capuçon in 2013.

It was Aufgang that prompted Mullova and Barley to ask Dusapin to write them a double concerto, but the Frenchman held off for a long time, since he had already lined up multiple string-related commissions and wanted to avoid committing himself excessively to pieces for violin and cello. What clinched the deal was the suggestion that Dusapin could treat the two as a mega-instrument, a combined entity, in a way that would be different from writing merely for violin or cello.

The composer says he discovered At Swim-Two-Birds, the modernist novel from 1939 by Flann O’Brien, after he started working on the project, and decided to borrow the title. But anyone seeking out deeper connections between O’Brien’s virtuosic exercise in metafiction—in which the characters of the narrative interact with the first-person narrator—is bound to come up dry. Mullova has pointed out that it was never Dusapin’s intention to treat the fictional source programmatically. According to the composer, O’Brien’s “formal extravagance” is what captured his imagination.

The only program evident here is the partnership of the solo instruments as a metaphorical couple—their relationship with each other, through shifting phases of intimacy and conflict, and with the large, ravishingly scored ensemble. Across two interconnected, relatively slow-paced movements, Dusapin structures the work as a series of what in a conventional concerto would be cadenzas. The violin and cello come into the spotlight in lengthy passages in which they perform solos that evolve into duets.

Mullova led the way in establishing atmosphere, Barley joining in and further embellishing their duologues. Even in the most overtly virtuosic passage—a frenzied outburst of perpetual motion on the violin—Mullova projected a gripping emotional honesty that was echoed by Barley’s passionate phrasing on cello.

Similarly, Morlot maintained a firm focus on the work’s dramatic arc despite the complexity of Dusapin’s language, which weaves together multiple layers that proceed at varying time scales. The final minutes offered an exceptionally satisfying sense of an ending: a gentle subsidence of struggle at the end of the journey, against rolling waves of percussion, serene but not facile. At Swim-Two-Birds has its U.K.premiere in London later this month.