Rising Phoenix: A Fiery Concerto for Transformative Times
"When Daniel asked me how I felt about using the Phoenix legend as the source of our concerto, I actually felt chills."
That's how Colorado Symphony Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams recalls the beginning of her collaboration with composer Daniel Kellogg on Rising Phoenix, a concerto for violin and orchestra making its world premiere October 14, 2016, at Boettcher Concert Hall.
Kellogg, who holds the role of Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Colorado in Boulder, began collaborating on Rising Phoenix with Hwang-Williams in September 2015.
"All of classical music is a collaboration," says Kellogg. "When it's a premiere, it's all a question mark until the performance. There is a lot to figure out before we bring the piece to the audience."
This concerto marks Kellogg's second world premiere with the Colorado Symphony; in December 2014, Hwang-Williams, Principal Horn Michael Thornton, and Artistic Advisor Andrew Litton performed and recorded Kellogg's original composition A Glorious Morning at Carnegie Hall.
Since they first began working together, Kellogg was eager to compose a solo for Hwang-Williams. In search of folkloric inspiration to provide a dramatic story arch, Kellogg found his muse right in his own home: his wife, Chinese concert pianist Hsing-ay Hsu, was the first to suggest the story of the Phoenix. Their young daughter's books on Eastern fables and legends stoked his imagination, and the first sparks of Rising Phoenix appeared.
For Hwang-Williams, the Phoenix resonates on a deeply personal level, as well. "After emigrating from South Korea at the age of nine, my new beginning in America was very much a rebirth."
The tale of the Phoenix is widely known and well-traveled, found in many forms in cultures and religions across the globe and dating back thousands of years. The Phoenix is described as a magical and singular bird of stunning beauty, and is revered as a good omen.
Many traditions tell of the Phoenix offering a morning song to the sun, and in return receiving immortality. Some say the mythic bird will live in seclusion for hundreds of years before becoming mysteriously set aflame and reemerging, young once more, from its own ashes.
And Rising Phoenix is indeed a fiery concerto, interlacing tranquil moments with bursts of rapid intensity, including a scherzo Kellogg describes as "four minutes of blazing-fast passages." Kellogg didn't hold back when composing Hwang-Williams' "challenging and flashy" solo, admitting "it's a lot for one person to carry off."
For Hwang-Williams, the challenge lies as much in creating an emotional connection with the audience as demonstrating her renowned technical expertise.
"As a performer, I'm an interpreter—my main job is to be a medium between composer and audience. Being comfortable enough with the piece to truly deliver its message and feeling is one my biggest challenges."
Kellogg is completely confident in Hwang-Williams' ability to pull off this rousing piece: "She is a spectacular player and if I’ve done my job well, the audience will be captivated by her artistry."
Yet Rising Phoenix promises to reveal far more than Hwang-Williams' extraordinary talent as a solo violinist. It is wrought in emotion, with five movements in a thirty-minute span that play moments of lyrical serenity off dramatic, pulse-quickening bursts of energy. The concerto boasts a dynamic structure, textured with contrasting modes and dialogues soaring and pivoting like a powerful bird in flight.
Kellogg's methodology in composing also resembles the elusive, ascendant Phoenix. "My ideas are born in the isolation and the infinite possibilities of my studio. Until a person plays that music live, it is theoretical."
And what better performer to bring the piece to life than Hwang-Williams, who has always been intrigued by the idea of reinvention, believes "we are all capable of transformation, of rising out of our circumstances."
It's fitting, then, that Rising Phoenix makes its world premiere during the Colorado Symphony's 2016/17 Season. After years of uncertainty followed by a steady rise towards stability, the Symphony is on its best financial health since its inception 27 years ago—a reemergence signifying good things to come, and proof that reinvention isn't always a fable.