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Holes in the Sky

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Rachel performs on “Blue Piece” with Lara Downes on Downes’ album Holes in the Sky, a genre-fluid collection of music written and performed by today’s leading female artists, celebrating the contributions of phenomenal women to the past, present, and future of American music.

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Rachel performs on “Blue Piece” with Lara Downes on Downes’ album Holes in the Sky, a genre-fluid collection of music written and performed by today’s leading female artists, celebrating the contributions of phenomenal women to the past, present, and future of American music.

In addition to her song with Rachel, Downes collaborates with an extraordinary multi-generational group of female guest artists on this album, including the iconic singer / songwriter Judy Collins, singer / instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens (2018 MacArthur Fellow), pianist Simone Dinnerstein, fast-rising cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing, and the urban youth vocal ensemble Musicality.

This music tells the story of what women and girls can contribute to the world when they are given a chance – their dreams can make holes in the skyThe album is presented in support of with PLAN International Because I Am A Girl, supporting the rights and empowerment of girls and young women around the globe; Women’s Empowerment, ending homelessness one woman – and one family – at a time; and the Lower East Side Girls Club, breaking the cycle of poverty by training the next generation of ethical, entrepreneurial, and environmental leaders.

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A Note From Rachel

In August 2018, I was scheduled to record a very different album. At the last minute, my conductor partner had a change of schedule and couldn’t make the dates work. With a hall, producer, and orchestra ready to go, the Dvořák and Khachaturian immediately jumped to mind as an alternate project. I had performed each of them a few times during my 2017–2018 season and the similarity of each composer’s prominent use of his own ethnic music had struck me very forcefully. They felt like an excellent pairing and are both pieces that I love playing.

I first learned each violin concerto when I was 15. Having studied all the standard warhorses, I began exploring the next most frequently requested concertos. I fell in love with the Dvořák and the Khachaturian and have been fortunate to have performed them each regularly since I was a teenager.

When I first began learning the Dvořák Violin Concerto, it felt like an old friend. I had frequently listened to his Cello Concerto, had studied a number of his chamber music works, and had even had the opportunity to play a couple of his symphonies. I was drawn to the Violin Concerto and the way it blends a Brahmsian approach to tone with rhythms inspired by Czech folk music. And of course, the rondo theme of the last movement is one of the catchiest melodies in the violin repertoire! I immediately connected with the Khachaturian Violin Concerto and, for a short period, it was my go-to concerto for competitions. As a diehard heavy metal fan, the powerfully rhythmic opening really fit my personality (to this day, I particularly enjoy attacking the end of Oistrakh’s cadenza, a great headbanging moment). However, I was also enchanted by the work’s incredibly passionate and yearning melodic sections.

My appreciation grew once I started soloing it with orchestras, surrounded by the exciting colors of Khachaturian’s masterful orchestration (cymbal crashes! a viola section solo!). In fact, my favorite moment in the entire piece is one where I’m not even playing; near the end of the second movement, the entire orchestra loudly takes over the melody – like the pivotal crisis in an epic drama. In that moment, I stand there thinking that I have the best seat in the house! I’m so grateful to the brilliant conductor Teddy Abrams, who joined the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and me. Recording sessions can be stressful – it can be very hard to emote without an audience and to fight against the clock. However, this one was especially fun, thanks to the committed playing of my colleagues, Teddy’s fresh insights into this familiar music, and Andrew Keener’s astute encouragement.

I also want to extend special thanks to John and Bar Purser for their amazing hospitality in hosting my family and me at their croft for a few days before the recording session in Glasgow. There’s nothing more inspiring than views of the untamed highlands, the smell of fresh sea air, the taste of home-grown freshly picked veggies and fine single malt, and, most importantly, conversation with one of the world’s great musical minds and special souls. Slàinte mhath!


In 1879, Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) began writing a violin concerto for the eminent violinist Joseph Joachim. The process, experienced by many composers before him (including Bruch and Brahms), would consist of composing, sharing the music with Joachim, receiving comments, making revisions, and repeating as necessary until Joachim was ready to give the work a public premiere. Dvořák had every reason to expect a favorable outcome. Joachim had already performed some of his chamber music and Brahms, Joachim’s close friend, was an active supporter. Things did not go as planned. Although Dvoř.k had been a proficient string player, previously serving as principal viola of the Provisional Theater in Prague, Joachim had concerns about the writing for the solo violin. He wrote in a letter to Dvořák that, “certain details make it clear that you have not played [the violin] yourself for some time.”

Furthermore, Joachim did not look favorably on the formal structure of Dvořák’s first movement. Despite Joachim’s conservative preference for classical form, he had earlier accepted the unusual first movement of Bruch’s G minor Concerto with its segue into the second movement. However, Dvořák’s concept was even more radical – his rhapsodic first movement contains no significant orchestral tutti, no solo cadenza, and a truncated recapitulation that is essentially interrupted by a transitional section. Dvořák’s publisher even tried to get him to change the end of the first movement so that it no longer flowed directly into the second. Thankfully for us, Dvořák insisted on his vision. The collaborative process dragged on for three years. Joachim had clearly thought enough of the music’s potential to make copious notes suggesting significant rewrites. In November 1882, Joachim gave the piece a run-through. However, he was not satisfied and ultimately declined to perform the Concerto publicly.

The premiere was given by the young Czech violinist František Ondříček in Prague in 1883. Ondříček, whose own output included a “Bohemian Rhapsody” for violin, clearly had a strong affinity for his countryman’s new piece and toured it all over the world to great success.

Dvořák’s writing demands a fullness of tone typical of German Romantic music and makes copious use of the lyrical quality of the solo violin in all three movements, while incorporating brilliant passagework and characterful dance-like fiddling. The second movement is a gorgeous example of a chamber music dialogue between soloist and orchestra in the context of a lush symphonic sound. Its popularity was such that it was often performed as a stand-alone work. While Slavic rhythms infuse the entire Concerto, the last movement is particularly folkloric, with a bagpipe texture in the accompaniment and the typical melancholy “dumka” section in the middle. The main rondo theme is inspired by a Czech folk dance called a “furiant”, which contains energetic rhythmic patterns of two against three. The exuberant coda contains a return of the dumka theme, now in triumphant major key.

By a lovely coincidence, I recorded the Dvořák Concerto on August 22, the birthday of my violin hero, Maud Powell. Powell was one of the work’s earliest champions in America. In preparing to perform it for the first time, she met with Dvoř.k to play it through for him. Before she could start, Dvoř.k informed her that Joachim felt that the work was too difficult for any woman. Needless to say, Powell proved her old teacher wrong. When she finished, Dvořák jokingly suggested that he “should write to Joachim at once that he had found a woman who could play his concerto perfectly.” If only Powell had lived long enough to record her interpretation for posterity!

Considered the most important Armenian composer of the 20th century, Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978) did not begin studying music until the age of 19, when he moved to Moscow from present-day Georgia. He was over 30 by the time he completed his training at the Moscow Conservatory. Beginning with his Piano Concerto in 1936, his major works garnered international attention and earned him the reputation as the third greatest Soviet composer after Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto was written during two months in the summer of 1940 and premiered that November by its dedicatee, David Oistrakh. The Concerto quickly gained international popularity and was awarded the Soviet Union’s highest artistic award, the Stalin Prize, the following year. Oistrakh praised its stirring rhythms and sweeping melodic themes, calling it vivid, sincere and original, and replete with melodic beauty.

Describing the inspiration that he experienced during the compositional process, Khachaturian wrote, “Sometimes my thoughts and imagination outraced the hand that was covering the staff with notes. The themes came to me in such abundance that I had a hard time putting them in some order… I wrote music as though on a wave of happiness; my whole being was in a state of joy, for I was awaiting the birth of my son. And this feeling, this love of life, was transmitted to the music.”

The sounds of Transcaucasia permeate the concerto, with vibrant rhythms, rich ornamentation in imitation of improvised melismas, modal scales, harmonies based on folk music tunings and overtones, and timbres suggestive of Eastern instruments. As a child, Khachaturian had been exposed to a variety of ethnic folk music. He explained, “I grew up in an atmosphere rich in folk music: popular festivities, rites, joyous and sad events in the life of the people always accompanied by music, the vivid tunes of Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian songs and dances performed by ashugs (folk bards) and musicians… They shaped my musical consciousness and lay at the foundations of my artistic personality.”

During his university years, inspired by the thousands of pieces of Armenian folk music collected by the musicologist Komitas, he transcribed folk songs from Armenia, Russia, Hungary, and Turkey. His interest in traditional music extended from the Caucasus to Eastern and Central Europe and the Middle East. The year before writing the Violin Concerto, Khachaturian spent six months in Armenia immersing himself in its folk music.

The Violin Concerto’s first movement is in traditional sonata-allegro form, with the tightly rhythmic first theme giving way to a lyrical second theme, which is followed by a pleading third theme. After a dramatic and virtuosic development, a duet between the soloist and clarinet leads into an extended cadenza. Oistrakh wrote his own cadenza as an alternative to that by the composer, and Khachaturian said that he preferred Oistrakh’s to his own. The soloist trades melody for countermelody during the recapitulation, and the movement concludes with a brilliant coda.

The second movement begins with an orchestral introduction that contains a searching bassoon solo. The violin’s languorous main melody reappears in a variety of different registers and dynamics as a quasi-rondo. The exotic instrumental colors of the rhapsodic and impassioned middle section are enhanced by Oistrakh’s suggestion of muting the solo violin.

The last movement is a vigorous dance in rondo form with a portion of the sensual middle section derived from the first movement. A feeling of abandon and irresistible enthusiasm infuses the blazing virtuosity. Indeed, the sheer wildness of some of the orchestral outbursts has a flavor that might be considered exaggerated Orientalism. The coda contains a clever reprise of the first movement’s second theme, played by the cello section.

© Rachel Barton Pine, 2019

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