By Thomas May | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
For a good two decades, Anne Akiko Meyers has made it a hallmark of her artistic mission to expand the literature for her instrument by inviting living composers to write something new—and then championing the results with total commitment. It’s an undertaking not recommended for the risk averse. While playing the mainstream repertoire entails having a tradition to fall back on whenever doubts arise, being the first to introduce a composition to the public can resemble setting out on a tightrope walk without a safety net.
This intrepid attitude makes Meyers an ideal advocate for Michael Daugherty’s new violin concerto, Blue Electra, which is inspired by the legacy of the boldly adventurous aviatrix Amelia Earhart. From November 10–12 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Meyers will give the work its world premiere with the National Symphony Orchestra led by Gianandrea Noseda.
The Grammy Award–winning Daugherty is especially celebrated for his transformations of iconic American figures and places into music. His compositions frequently evoke the mythology associated with popular culture, such as Superman comics (Metropolis Symphony), Elvis Presley (Dead Elvis), Route 66, and Andy Warhol (the recent symphonic fantasy Fifteen), while his opera Jackie O deconstructs the barriers supposedly separating “high” and “lowbrow” culture. For Blue Electra, the composer imagined the violin soloist herself as representing different facets of Earhart’s personality: from her pioneering courage and love of poetry to her interaction with celebrities in Hollywood and Paris, all culminating in the tragedy of her final flight.
“The whole backstory that goes into creating an endeavor as gigantic as a violin concerto fascinates me and always puts me in complete awe of composers,” Meyers shares during a Zoom conversation near the end of summer. “It has been an incredible privilege to be in the same room and have them describe how they want their music to be heard and their thoughts behind a piece. I think that with all these composers, I am working together with the Beethovens and the Chopins and the Rachmaninoffs of the day. If I could go back in history, these are people I would have harassed for more repertoire for the violin!”
Indeed, making the case for new music is so important to the violinist that in addition to Blue Electra, she has devoted her entire fall concert schedule to her other most recent commission. Meyers originally gave the premiere of Fandango by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel during the 2021 Hollywood Bowl season. Thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response, the orchestra decided to reprise Fandango as part of its regular Walt Disney Concert Hall season in October, as well as to include the concerto on its fall tour, with stops in Mexico City and New York (its first time back at Carnegie Hall in 32 years).
Both Blue Electra and Fandango are substantial violin concertos, yet they could hardly be more varied in style and approach to the instrument—one a dramatic portrait of an American heroine that at the same time surveys the psyche of the violin itself, the other steeped in a profound knowledge of the dances and rhythms embedded in Mexican tradition.
Such diversity is characteristic of the extensive body of work Meyers has commissioned to date. Along with Daugherty and Márquez, the impressively far-ranging list of composers who have responded to the invitation to write for her includes such figures as Arvo Pärt, Wynton Marsalis, Jennifer Higdon, Mason Bates, the late Einojuhani Rautavaara, Somei Satoh, and Morten Lauridsen. The sole criterion they seem to share is that these are composers whose musical language generated a profound reaction when Meyers first encountered it. For all the excitement of introducing innovative perspectives on her instrument or confronting new technical challenges, her desire to work with contemporary composers is grounded primarily in the intensity of feeling their music can evoke.
“It really started back when I was a teenager and chose Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto for my first recording,” she says, referring to her 1988 debut album, which played a major role in reviving the then-neglected work. “It hadn’t been performed much at all and wasn’t on many people’s radars. But Barber’s music haunted me and captured my heart.” Meyers believes that experience “laid the foundation” for the kind of connection she seeks out when contemplating a new collaboration.
From the perspective of the composers who captivate Meyers, her commissions can be the catalyst for significant breakthroughs. The prolific Daugherty, one of the most frequently performed orchestral composers at work today, has regularly adapted the concerto genre to explore his fascination with American iconography, as in Spaghetti Western and UFO, his concertos for English horn and percussion, respectively. An earlier violin concerto, 2003’s Fire and Blood, addresses the Detroit period of the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Meyers recalls that hearing a performance of Tales of Hemingway, a cello concerto from 2015 that draws on different phases of the writer’s work, prompted her to commission another concerto for her instrument. She gave Daugherty free rein to choose the topic. The composer points out that he had set his sights on a piece about Amelia Earhart for some time: “I was always fascinated by her. She’s not only a real icon but also a crossover figure who was very famous in her time and hobnobbed with the likes of Cary Grant and the Marx Brothers in the 1930s. And then there’s the mystery about her disappearance. I realized her story would be a great dramatic vehicle for a concerto.”
It’s also clear that Daugherty himself feels a special connection to Earhart, one perhaps underscored by his own identification with the American maverick tradition. To suggest the epic scope as well as the variety of the Earhart legend, he associates each of Blue Electra’s four movements with distinctive sound worlds, each conveying a different aspect of the violin’s expressive potential. The concerto begins by foregrounding the violin’s identity as a supremely melodic instrument in a movement titled “Courage (1928),” which al-ludes to one of the pilot’s poems (“Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace”). “Technically, Anne can play anything,” says Daugherty. “But she also has an amazing tone and a fantastic ability to play melodically on the violin, so I wanted to bring that out as well. Lately I’ve been especially interested in writing melodies, even if that’s not in style nowadays.”
The second movement makes an excursion into hot Parisian jazz—corresponding to Earhart’s 1932 visit to Paris to receive the Cross of the Legion of Honor from the French government—while the third movement presents a highly energetic response to a youthful poem by Earhart, in which she dreams of rising into the clouds in an airplane cockpit. But it was Daugherty’s concept for the finale above all that motivated him to take his concerto writing in an unprecedented direction.
Depicting the fateful attempt in 1937 to fly around the world in her Lockheed-built Electra aircraft, the composer came up with an ending he says is “unlike anything I’ve written before. My endings for my other concertos have tended to be very rhythmically exciting, but for this I had to write a tragic ending, which was a challenge.” According to Meyers, who had been refining technical details about the concerto with Daugherty via Zoom just the day before, “the ending will give chills to everyone, because it sounds like she’s falling from the sky. The Electra’s little motor gets louder and louder, until the whole orchestra has become a giant engine—and then it just ends.”
In the case of Fandango, Márquez recalls that he had contemplated writing a violin concerto some 20 years ago using ideas based on the Mexican version of the fandango dance that had originated in Spain as part of flamenco culture. Having abandoned that project, Márquez found his inspiration suddenly rekindled when Meyers approached him in 2018 with the proposal of writing a work for violin and orchestra involving the instrument’s mariachi tradition and Mexican folklore. The composer’s father had a career as a mariachi violinist, and the violin had been his own first instrument before he moved to piano and composition.
Márquez, who lives just outside Mexico City, explains that he used to follow an experimental direction in the late 1980s, producing pieces using mixed media and electroacoustic hybrids. “But then I decided to write music that was closer to my heart and background, and I’ve been working with Latin American rhythms and genres now for more than 30 years.” His widely performed series of Danzones draws on the musical idioms associated with Mexico’s eastern coast and Gulf region (such as Veracruz), where the fandango and other European Baroque imports were transformed and took on a characteristically Mexican stamp.
Along with these traditions, Márquez was also inspired by Meyers’ virtuosity and “courage in proposing a concerto so out of the ordinary.”He especially admires her expressiveness in slow movements and even rewrote Fandango’s second movement entirely, producing a prayer-like chaconne that he realized was better suited to his vision for the concerto. “There are lots of virtuosos all over the world, but Anne has a wonderful technique and style that is all her own. She understood the mariachi rhythms, especially of the Fandanguito [the final movement], so well.”
“I love to push boundaries as much as possible while trying to create a beautiful sound,” says Meyers. “I have a tendency to sculpt the sound and to use a lot of color. Arturo was talking about how he listened to my Mendelssohn, and I think his own music has so much lyricism and Romanticism, but also this wild, passionate color throughout.” She adds that her 1741 “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesù offers “an arsenal of color, rich tones, and power” to confront the unique challenges her commissions pose, “like the fast playing and different techniques I have to use to make the mariachi idiom come alive and not play so much in the classical tradition.”
Regarding the art of commissioning itself, Meyers explains that her strategy has been simply to approach a composer she admires. “If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. Sometimes you have to wait years before your proposal comes to fruition, so it’s important to at least get your foot in the door and have them start thinking about it.” After being moved by a YouTube performance of Morten Lauridsen’s a cappella motet O Magnum Mysterium, for example, she asked him to write something but was turned down for some time before her persistence won out. The composer finally offered to arrange the motet for violin, thus inaugurating a collaboration that has continued with various other arrangements of his vocal music—several of which appear on her most recent album, Shining Night (Avie).
The work that results from a new commission doesn’t need to be a full-scale concerto, as with Márquez and Daugherty, to be meaningful. A relatively brief piece can be just as significant and full of emotional depth, according to Meyers. Indeed, her efforts have also added several gem-like miniatures to the violin repertoire. Because of John Corigliano’s reluctance to repeat himself, he had no interest in producing another concerto after The Red Violin. But Meyers noticed that his oeuvre lacked an example of the lullaby genre, so she convinced him to write Lullaby for Natalie in 2011 to celebrate the imminent birth of her first daughter. More recently, Meyers persuaded him to write new cadenzas for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto—a project that combines her love of classic repertoire and new music. She praises Corigliano’s contribution as respecting the original “from an authentically contemporary viewpoint.”
“To produce something with a living composer is the most empowering feeling,” Meyers affirms. “It’s really like making a baby. There’s a gestation period of years from the time that the idea is first brought up. I am so thankful to these composers for leaving a legacy for future generations of violinists to enjoy. This is the greatest gift of all.”