Bull’s Eye

When Olav Anton Thommessen’s violin concerto «Bull’ Eye» is performed by Michal Majersky and the Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hermann Bäumer this week, it is not a result of aggressive marketing from Norwegian side. Principal violinist Majersky, found the work by himself, probably through the CD recording of Peter Herresthal on the BIS label.

Obtaining a performance by a foreign orchestra with a piece of contemporary music in the “old way”; i.e. a musician catching interest on his own initiative, is a dream come through for a composer or a publisher. For this to happen with Olav Anton Thommessen, however, is not a surprise. He counts among the most important Norwegian composers of his generation and is widely regarded as a national character because of a series of radio programs on music that was awarded Prix Italia in 1997. For a long period of time he has communicated with his audience using music from earlier colleagues as an ingredient in his own works. His most well-known work in this respect is «Macro-Fantasy on Grieg’s A Minor for Piano and Large Orchestra», where he lets the audience memorize phrases from Grieg’s famous piano concerto by presenting well known chords and motifs followed by complete quietness. During the 30 years that have passed since this work, he has used composers like Beethoven and Verdi the same way. The work “Corelli Machine” was composed for the 25th anniversary of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in 2002.

The history of «Bull’s Eye» is somewhat special: The Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull (1810-1880) spent his life at the international concert venues. As usual for top violinists in the first half of the 19th Century, he played his own, technically demanding works, - all reserved for his own career. He was sure nobody else would be able to play them, and only few of his works have been available after his death.

However, in connection with the Bull research of the Norwegian musicologist Harald Herresthal, unknown manuscripts were found in both of Ole Bull’s residences in Norway, as well as a deposit box in the USA (Bull’s second wife was American). In 1997 Herresthal showed Olav Anton Thommessen a manuscript he had found of an unfinished violin concerto.

- The solo part was missing. We imagined that Bull sent out the orchestral score without the violin part, so that he could improvise a solo part at the podium. I started imagining that such a procedure could have made an entirely new genre lacking in the history of music. Why are there no more such solo part-less concertos? Imagine if composers and musicians had cooperated over the style borders to create such common works, Thommessen wrote in a program note for the world premiere in 2002.

- I suggested a number of solutions, but decided to use the idea of a double orchestra, a symphonic wrapping of the original score with the violin part as an intermediary. I made a demo that was performed in Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, where the violinist Peter Herresthal had an engagement. To my big surprise the demo was awarded the prize Work of the Year 1999.

On a commission from Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Thommessen took on to complete the work. It was not a matter of reconstructing the solo part of the Bull work, but an independent work based on Bull material. During the work another version of the score showed up, still without the solo part, but with a better instrumentation that Thommessen decided to use.

- Then the bomb exploded! Herresthal found the original manuscript in another pile of papers. Ole Bull obviously had written down a solo part, but reserved it for himself to secure him monopoly on performing it. Bull’s violin concerto had been there all the time! The ruling picture of Bull was that of an amateur composer, womanizer and exotic, eccentric person. His music was considered a collection of musical «pearls», and we let it be with that. Now, however, we had come into possession of a considerable work from 1834, that is a good example of an international Italian-virtuoso style – with no "Norwegianness" attached .

- After this discovery my situation was completely changed. After a short compositional “paralysis”, I found a solution on how to proceed. Having located the Carrabosse metaforic needle, I lead it directly into the heart of my concerto. I was in the middle of a section where Bull’s original score consisted of a downwards spiral of dim chords. I decided to lead this spiral all the way down, while the light on the orchestra gradually were switched off. In the meanwhile all the orchestral violinists rise up playing a great section cadenza together with the soloist. While the lights on the violins extinguish, the light on the soloist performing a cadenza is strengthened with a spot. This light is gradually put out, to be replaced by a cadenza on tape – in total darkness.

Both concertos were performed at Bergen International Festival 2002, and Thommessen’s «Bull’s Eye» was perhaps the one the attracted the greatest interest. The concert has later been performed by all the major Norwegian orchestras, and now has found its way out in the world – all by itself.

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