Scott Wheeler’s Birds of America: Violin Concerto No. 2

Notes by the composer

The birds in my violin concerto Birds of America are not depicted literally, and it isn’t important for a listener to identify them, but quite a few birds make appearances in the work. The first movement includes a hawk, a whippoorwill, loons, and a mourning dove. The second movement, which features prominent solos for celeste and flute, draws on my music for the ballet Nightingale, developed with choreographer Melissa Barak. The finale is a dance, or a series of dances, perhaps set in an aviary.

One day this past spring, as Gil Shaham and I were planning this concerto, we took a walk in Central Park with his wife, the violinist Adele Anthony. We passed what I later learned was a downy woodpecker, which Adele filmed on her phone. That chance encounter inspired me to start the third movement of Birds of America with taps on the body of the violin, bow taps (col legno) in the violas, and a few high peeps roughly transcribed from woodpecker calls.

Some of the birds in this concerto are taken from earlier music rather than from nature, and are not specifically American birds. There are brief references to “Spring” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the opening of The Birds by Respighi, Schumann’s Bird as Prophet, and a novelty tune called The Hot Canary, famously played by the jazz violinist Joe South. As with the bird calls, the listener need not identify these cameo appearances from other music. Gil Shaham directed me to some of these references, and he advised me on many details of the violin part. Our conversations led us to consider questions of concerto writing from Mozart to Mendelssohn to Prokofiev and beyond. We agreed that the violin is essentially a singing voice.

Birds of America: Violin Concerto #2 is in three movements, marked Quietly Soaring, Adagietto, and Allegro vivo. The work was commissioned by Bard College for The Orchestra Now and its music director, Leon Botstein. It is dedicated to Gil Shaham.