Concertmaster of the Jacksonville Symphony Performs Soaring Solos

Courtney Lewis, Conducting Electricity

Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony

Ralph Vaughan Williams occupies a unique spot in music history. He lived a long life from 1872 to 1958, straddling the Romantic and Modern periods, and with Edward Elgar, who was 20 years his senior, led a renaissance of English music with his nine symphonies, operas, concertos and countless songs. He loved English folk music, traveling around the country with his friend and fellow composer Gustav Holst writing down songs. His music could be anguished and modern, as in the Fourth Symphony, but more often strikes a pastoral note, often drawing comparisons to the gently rolling English countryside.  

Vaughan Williams’ work for orchestra and solo violin, The Lark Ascending, is one of his most famous and popular. The inspiration is a poem by George Meredith, which Vaughan Williams quotes in the score: 

He rises and begins to round, 
He drops the silver chain of sound, 
Of many links without a break, 
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes…

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Vaughan Williams’ wife Ursula explained that the composer “took a literary idea on which to build his musical thought, making the violin become the bird’s song and its flight, rather than illustrating the poem.” Written in 1913, Vaughan Williams entitled it “a Romance” for orchestra, and in many ways, it’s an idyllic picture of England on the cusp of the First World War. 

Performing the solo part is our wonderful concertmaster, Adelya Nartadjieva. Adelya joined the Symphony two seasons ago after a search that lasted several years. The role of concertmaster in an orchestra is very important. The whole orchestra watches her for where exactly to place each note. All the string players match how she uses her bow, and she’s in charge of deciding which direction their bow goes throughout every piece of the season. That in itself is an enormous responsibility. She’s also the Music Director’s right-hand man, or woman! I might ask the orchestra for something poetic to inspire a certain sound. Adelya will then translate that metaphorical language into specifics for the strings, for example, asking them to play it on a particular string in a particular part of the bow, with a specific type of vibrato. 

The concertmaster is also responsible for the orchestra’s ensemble: that is, literally, that we play together. That’s a conductor’s responsibility too, but with most great orchestras, there is a tiny fraction of a second of delay between when the conductor puts down a beat, and the orchestra makes the sound. If it were instantaneous, then the conductor wouldn’t have the opportunity to influence the sound because it would already be happening. Adelya interprets my movements and shows the musicians exactly where to play. This kind of leadership frees the conductor up to do other things apart from ensemble like balance, phrasing and long-term structure. 

Adelya is one of the finest concertmasters I’ve worked with. Not only is she a world-class violinist, she’s also a brilliant leader. Her colleagues respect and trust her, and she is a terrific advocate for the Symphony off the stage too. The sound of the first violins in the Jacksonville Symphony has been transformed since she arrived, as has the strength of rhythmical ensemble in the whole orchestra. We are very lucky to have her here with us. Some of you may have heard her extraordinary performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, paired with Astor Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. It was a terrific concert.  

I recently asked Adelya what she likes most about The Lark Ascending, and she answered, “[The piece] is extremely beautiful and transcends you to a place of your choosing. I have this picture in my head where you wake up early in the morning when the sun is about to rise, and it’s dead quiet. But, when you step outside and listen very carefully, there are so many sounds in nature, and the birds are singing. When you listen just a little bit closer, you hear the wind and the leaves. The other picture I have in my head is when you go on a flight early in the morning, and you see the earth from a bird’s-eye view. You realize that life is so expansive, and you’re a part of it, and it’s just so beautiful.” 

These performances of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending will be my first time working with Adelya as a soloist, and I’m really looking forward to working with her in this different capacity. The rest of the concert features one of my favorite pieces by Elgar, “In the South,” and ends with William Walton’s powerful First Symphony. We hope to see you there!