The Viola Commissioning Circle
Viola Commissioning Circle

Cassandra Miller Viola Concerto

Commissioned by BBC Radio 3, Brussels Philharmonic, National Arts Centre Orchestra (Ottawa), and Scottish Chamber Orchestra, supported by The Viola Commissioning Circle

World premiere 11 March 2023 at Flagey, Brussels with Brussels Philharmonic conducted by Ilan Volkov; UK premiere on 4 May 2023 with Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds.

[Miller's] work generally moves at an unhurried pace, employing loops, ostinatos, and other repetitive structures. Yet its progress is as unpredictable as it is methodical. Simple harmonies cloud over, fixed tones melt into glissandos, squalls of noise blow in. A chaotic humanness animates this zone of the minimalist multiverse, with the singing voice front and center.

The concerto’s première took place at the Klarafestival, in Brussels, and is streaming at the Belgian site VRT. Lawrence Power gives a staggering account of the solo part, with Ilan Volkov and the Brussels Philharmonic providing vehement support. As the viola delivers its keening, cawing songs, the orchestra becomes a chamber of resonances and reverberations: the strings quiver in sympathy, the brass cast brooding shadows, a piccolo alights with birdlike chatter. We end where we begin, with a glimmer of harp, but something colossal has transpired.

The piece itself demands such devotional attention, although, given the complex provenance of its sources, it doesn’t pass itself off as a pure, sacred vessel. The atmosphere of lamentation is engulfing—so much so that you could hear the work as one more apocalyptic lullaby for an anxious age. Yet the emotions are too ragged and potent to leave you in a daze of sadness. Shards of memory pierce the illusion of a seamless ritual. Sorrow edges into rage. This is music that reminds us how to cry.

Alex Ross, The New Yorker