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David Ludwig: Swan Song

Violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Yekwon Sunwoo will perform the world premiere of composer David Ludwig's piece, Swan Song (commissioned by Carnegie Hall) in Weill Recital Hall on Thursday, November 14. David is not only a composer, but also Dean of Artistic Programs at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he is a member of the composition faculty and serves as Director of the school's 20/21 Contemporary Music Ensemble. 

He took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about Swan Song.

Q&A - David Ludwig, Composer

CH: How did you meet violinist Benjamin Beilman?
DL: I first got to know Ben as a student of Ida Kavafian's at Curtis, and then spent some time with him when he was at Marlboro. I remember hearing a Tchaikovsky concerto he played as a teenager and just thought—this guy is the real deal! One of the great things of being at that school is watching musicians who are basically kids turn into accomplished professional musicians as adults.

When you first spoke about writing a piece for Ben, did he have any specifics in mind? Did you?
Ben has been very generous with me during the whole process of writing Swan Song, which has undergone so many evolutions along the way. First we discussed an unaccompanied sonata–à la Bartók. Then we talked about a more modular piece with piano that had unaccompanied music in it. But the process of writing a new work is one of discovery, and when you get an idea that feels right and you fall in love with it—that's all you can do in the piece. So Swan Song became one long single movement of duet with the piano, inspired by Schubert–pretty much the opposite of where our thinking began. Ben has been totally accommodating along the way, and I am very appreciative! In a sense the piece is still modular because it is a "Fantasy," meaning that the form is "informal"—one section flows into the next without the need to fit into a specific structure.

What is the significance of the title, Swan Song?
I write a lot of music inspired by other music—I feel like a sculptor being allowed to take clay from the same bucket that one of the great masters did, in this way. This particular piece was inspired by Schubert, specifically his Fantasy in C Major for violin and piano. 

That piece has always meant a lot to me; I've been listening to a recording of my grandfather and great-grandfather playing it for as long as I can remember. "Swan Song" is a term that, when we think of repertoire, we think of Schubert (specifically the Schwanengesang cycle, titled posthumously). And so the Fantasy, as one of the later works by a great master, is part of Schubert's extended swan song written in the last couple of years of his tragically short life. 

For me, though, the association with the title runs deeper. This work came at the end of a sequence of new works for Ravinia, the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I feel like all of these pieces I've written in the past year are connected by the same musical language. As this is the last of that series of works, and knowing that my own evolution is inevitable (as we evolve as people, so do we artistically), it is in a way my own swan song for the style I've been invested in recently.

What would you say are some of the defining musical characteristics of the piece?
The piece begins with a what I think of as a musical question set in the highest part of the registers of both the violin and piano, suspended in the air waiting to be resolved. The music descends from there, accelerating to some very fast driving rhythms. There's a slower, more lyrical middle section, a return to the faster, more active music, and then, after some very loud bangs, a slow, rising resolution to the music from the opening. This unraveling takes place over about 18 minutes, with lots of twists and turns in the plot along the way. 

I'm really interested in finding sounds unique to both the violin and piano and combining them, so the opening has this tinkling sound with the pianist plucking strings inside the instrument. There are some percussive sounds in the violin complimenting the striking action of the piano, too. But in the end, these sounds are just there to help tell the dramatic story of the piece, along with every melody and harmony in the music.

Will you attend the premiere? How does it feel to hear your music played in front of an audience?
I will certainly be there! Most composers I know try everything in their power not to miss a premiere—really it's the birth of the piece, and the wonderful payoff for the months of work that led up to that moment. It's kind of humbling to think of; that we spend countless days, weeks, and months putting a piece together, and then it appears for twenty minutes and is gone. The piece really only exists while it's being played, so you hope for many performances and a long life. I know Ben already has several lined up, and I'm excited about that. 

It's ultimately hard to convey to another person how it feels to have your piece performed if that's outside of their experience. On the difficult side is that you really feel naked there, like you are confiding some of your deepest secrets to everyone in the audience. And you have to realize that you have no control anymore--we're all control freaks--but once that first note has sounded you are now a listener like everyone else in the hall. 

But you know what? It's an experience I wouldn't trade for the world. And I know that I will always feel that excitement and vulnerability for the rest of my life!

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