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Violin Concerto – Eleven Eleven (Danny Elfman)

April 7, 2019

Two years ago the Prague orchestra requested that Danny Elfman compose a violin concerto for Sandy Cameron. Elfman responded by composing the concerto as his first free-standing orchestral work. That he loves the late Romantic idiom and especially its masters shines through clearly in the Violin Concerto, which he subtitled Eleven Eleven. Performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by John Mauceri it really is quite spectacular.

Elfman’s Violin Concerto consists of four parts, the opener being “Grave, Animato”. That title is one of several oxymorons in Elfman’s work. Grave means slow, whilst animato means animated… so it’s something slow, performed in an animated manner. It does start slow, with mournful-sounding strings. It’s a beautiful passage, which to me sounds at once dramatic, romantic and occasionally ominous. Elfman introduces a melodic motif that sounds quite similar to his theme for Wanted (a fantastic score, so any similarities are quite welcome). Animato is certainly the operative description for this piece. As the cue progresses it becomes more complex and faster; and some of the composer’s more familiar characteristics start to appear (especially in the brass). The writing for violin, and the performance of it by Sandy Cameron, is exquisite. It’s virtuous; and it’s akin to his ‘gypsy violin’ writing for Edward Scissorhands. The composer mentions in the liner notes that a performance of that Scissorhands music led to the commissioning of this concerto. On a few occasions the music builds to powerful orchestral outbursts, during which I’m reminded of Hulk and Red Dragon. I should say that I find these moments immensely satisfying, but what I really need to say is that those moments are absolutely f***ing incredible! There’s a lot of really cool stuff going on in this piece; and I’d also like to highlight the shift in tone around the 10-minute mark, when Elfman introduces an oddly timed string ostinato complete with col-legno slaps.

As said, the writing is phenomenal, and is likely to surprise and impress many a fan. In the liner notes Elfman writes that he wanted to find a balance between satisfying his filmmusic fans, whilst trying to impress a classical audience. Yes, he suggests those are two different audiences, and personally I agree with him. Coming at this as a filmmusic fan first (and classical second) I do believe this concerto sees Elfman venturing into territory that he’s rarely visited and explored before (certainly not to this extent). I always thought his Red Dragon was remarkably ‘classical’ or ‘sophisticated’, but now seems like a walk in the park compared to this concerto. Elfman’s expanding his horizons here, showcasing a side to him that’s more ambitious, more complex and more classical than most films have allowed to be; and yet… it is unmistakably Elfman. That’s what I love most about this work: him really pushing his boundaries, trying something new, without compromising his own musical characteristics.

As you can tell, I’m pretty smitten with this work (or at least most of it) though I do have a few issues with it. At times, it is very animato indeed, to the point it becomes a little tiring. I’m not too keen on the “Spietato” cue, the title of which translates roughly to words like fierce, ruthless and cruel. Its key element here is fast-paced, vigorous gypsy-style writing, which simply isn’t to my taste. “Fantasma” may be less fierce, but still isn’t really my kind of thing, though I appreciate it must have been challenging to write and challenging to perform; and everything from John Mauceri’s handling of the material to the recording, mixing and mastering is top-notch. The concerto concludes with “Giacoso, Lacrimae”, another contradiction as it implies to play something sad in a playful, uplifting manner. Here Elfman returns to some of his original ideas from “Grave, Animato”. In the liner notes he indicates that he wrote the concerto in a symphony-style whereby movement one introduces the central ideas, movements two and three deviate and explore, and movement four returns to the source completing the circle…. I paraphrase a little.

In all, it’s a outstanding work really. I loved his Serenada Schizophrana, which was pretty impressive; and I believe this concerto shows that Elfman has grown even more since then. Now, I must note that there are five more pieces on this album, which are part of his Piano Quartet. Consider me rude for not addressing them, but piano concertos really aren’t my thing, so I’m in no way qualified to pass comment on them. As with the concerto, they sound incredibly virtuous and animated and I hope that piano lovers get a good kick out of them.

Will Elfman achieve his objective of please (most of) both filmmusic and classical audiences? I sincerely hope he does. It’s great to hear a filmcomposer venturing out into concert works; and over the years and decades we’ve been treated to many wonderful works. Not least Elfman’s own Serenada Schizophrana and his work for Cirque du Soleil, but also from the likes of Michael Kamen, James Horner, John Powell, Elliot Goldenthal, James Newton Howard, Laura Karpman, Debbie Wiseman and many others. Elfman’s work is up there with the best of them.

Violin Concerto Eleven Eleven, Danny Eflman, Sony Classical, 9 tracks, 64m [4/5]

Review by Pete Simons (c) 2019 Synchrotones.

One Comment
  1. Lovely review, I have put this on hold as am catching up with soundtrack listening but will make sure I give it a listen as I am now very intrigued!

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