Nuit blanche (2004 rev. 2005)

Helmi Kuusi, violin, Kirkkonummi Sinfonietta, cond. Nils Schweckendiek

solo violin + 2222 4230 12 harp, piano/synth, strings (doublings: picc, eng. hn,
15 min.

I hesitate to describe Nuit blanche as a concerto in the commonly accepted sense of the term. It was composed in 2004 as a test piece for a violin competition, in which the soloist would be made to display as many facets of his or her musicality as possible within a relatively short time frame. As such, I felt had to dispense with symphonic argument in favor of a more concise form, and the piece more closely resembles a morceau de concert in the style of the 19th century, with two sections of opposing character, one slow and lyrical, the other fast, rhythmically charged, and more bravura in nature. Though I later expanded the piece from its original version, it retains this two-part structure, albeit in a more fully developed form.

The French title refers both to its figurative meaning, “passer une nuit blanche”, or to go without sleep for a night and, more literally, to the Nordic phenomenon of white nights in the summer, and their accompanying state of wakefulness. The piece is a twofold rhapsody on the themes of night and insomnia, both in the hushed atmosphere of much of the music, and the obsessive, repetitive way the thematic materials are treated, like a sleepless mind unable to let go of an idea. The violin is foregrounded for most of the span of the work, leaping out of the initial bell chord and introducing the material from which most of the subsequent music arises. After this prologue, a gentle but restless nocturne follows, which for me carries impressions of the bright, glowing sky of Nordic summer nights. The solo violin ruminates quietly, backlit by a canopy of strings punctuated by harp, tuned percussion and woodwinds. The mood changes intensity abruptly as the violin shifts focus in a short soliloquy, and the orchestra responds by launching into a series of dances that are by turn hectic, quirky and exalted, always returning to the same droning, obsessive music. Throughout these darker reprises, the violin is stalked relentlessly by various sections of the orchestra, trying to copy it, drown it out, or leaping out to attack it. Over the course of this faster section, the music is gradually pared down to its essentials, leaving a simple melody accompanied by flutes and vibraphone. In a sudden move back to the claustrophobic mood of the first dance, the soloist whips the orchestra into a collective frenzy, piling one thematic idea on top of another, and is left to untie the various threads in the following cadenza. In the end, having finally found rest or, perhaps, simply having exhausted itself, the violin vanishes skyward into the opening bell sound.