Composer, Violinist Collaborate For Debut of New Concerto With Colorado Symphony

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Photo: Yumi Hwang-Williams
Violinist Yumi-Hwang Williams is concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony.

The Colorado Symphony on Friday unveils a collaboration between two of the state’s most prominent classical musicians.

Violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams is the orchestra’s concertmaster, and a frequent soloist. And her friend, the composer Daniel Kellogg, wrote a brand new violin concerto for her.

It’s called “Rising Phoenix.” The concerto is inspired by mythology, but Hwang-Williams says the concerto also tells part of her story.

Hwang-Williams feels close to the legend of the phoenix -- the mythical bird that bursts into flames but rises from the ashes renewed.

Transformation is part of the violinist’s story. She moved to the U.S. from South Korea when she was 9, and says it felt like a kind of rebirth.

“When Daniel suggested the phoenix myth and legend, I sort of shuddered. It just felt so right,” she told CPR Classical's David Rutherford. “Sometimes we just have certain stories or connections that just sort of mean something to you.”

Kellogg -- who teaches composition at the University of Colorado -- says creating the piece around the phoenix story helped the two friends build on what they had in common.

“We both have children who were born in this country, but they’re half-Asian. And we fill our house with Asian fables and myths,” Kellogg said.

Photo: Daniel Kellogg
Composer Daniel Kellogg

The composer did part of his research by reading one of his daughter’s storybooks about the legend.

“There’s a beautiful structure here,” he said. “The phoenix has a beautiful song, the phoenix has this rebirth, there’s this adoption by the sun -- all these elements that created a wonderful structure."

He says parts of the legend cried out for a musical treatment. Just before the bird bursts into flames, the phoenix sings its gorgeous song.

Kellogg says it’s one of the most important moments of the piece -- and a great moment for Hwang-Williams to shine on her violin.

“It was one of the earliest things I wrote,” he said. “And I knew that the whole concerto had to ride on the beauty of that moment.”

Like most violin concertos, “Rising Phoenix” showcases the soloist with challenging passages and soaring melodies.

Hwang-Williams says this concerto certainly has its tricky parts. But she doesn’t want audience members to think about how hard she’s working onstage as they listen.

“My job is to make sure that it sounds seamless, and it sounds beautiful and it sounds easy,” she said. “As an audience member, you should not be distracted by, ‘Oh, that’s so difficult.’”

When Hwang-Williams steps onstage to play the piece at Boettcher Concert Hall, she wants to tell a powerful story about rebirth -- for the phoenix, but also for her.

The Colorado Symphony will perform Rising Phoenix a second time on Saturday at Boettcher Concert Hall.

This weekend’s concerts mark conductor Brett Mitchell’s first performances with the orchestra as music director designate.