By Stephanie Powell
Standing on the balcony of his flat in Copenhagen, composer Bent Sorensen, with a freshly written triple concerto permeating his headspace, watched the bustling city below him. The scene sparked his inspiration for the title of his new work: L’isola della Città (The Island in the City).
An anonymous nomination of the triple concerto garnered the Danish composer the 2018 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, a prize of $100,000. The piece, originally composed for Trio con Brio and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, is for violin, cello, piano, and selected members of the orchestra. It premiered in January 2016. Sorensen, who studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, is first to admit his “love affair with the violin.” His father played the violin and had hopes that his son would follow suit.
“I never learned the violin, so instead I decided to compose,” Sorensen says. “I grew up with the sound of the violin and my father playing. When I was a child we had a tape recorder and my father recorded violin concertos—Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky—so that was my first entrance to classical music.”
The violin led him to the rest of the bowed stringed-instrument family. He notes that there always seems to be a focus on stringed instruments in his collective works—regardless of the format. “The thing about stringed instruments is that they have so many colors—if you listen to a string quartet you can hear hundreds of sounds. There are so many different instruments inside the violin and stringed instruments, and I love to recognize that.”
In his award-winning work L’isola della Città (The Island in the City), Sorensen explores dueling soundscapes with a trio at the core crashing against the busy orchestra. “In all five movements the ‘island’ (the trio) tries to escape the shadows of the orchestra,” Sorensen says. “This is most evident in the last movement, in which the trio ever so silently and without attracting any attention, simply glides away from the orchestra’s noisy shadows.”
Marc Satterwhite, award director and faculty member at the University of Louisville School of Music, says of the work: “It is not a virtuoso showcase, but rather integrates the soloists smoothly into an ever-evolving orchestral texture. Often they feel more like ‘first among equals’ rather than traditional soloists, but at other times really come to the fore. Although it has its larger moments, on the whole it is one of the gentler, more introspective winners of this award.”
Sorensen says he’s very honored and grateful to have received the Grawemeyer Award, and its timing coincides with another recent honor. On November 30, 2017, the New York Philharmonic premiered “Evening Land,” which was originally commissioned by the orchestra through the Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music. It was Sorensen’s first premiere with the NY Phil. “It’s quite a coincidence that [the New York Philharmonic premiere takes place] at the same time as the award, so there’s an American connection there,” he adds with a laugh.