Perhaps there is no more personal writing for violin than a solo piece. Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach wrote of his father's compelling violin playing, evidenced by the transcendent J.S. Bach solo sonatas and partitas. I'd wished to learn the violin when young, but for several reasons (including the theft of my grandfather's Sears "Stradivarius" from the family car) I never got to learn to play; I still wish I had. I had to settle for learning how to write for the violin by working with violinists from a young age -- in fact a principal joy for me as a composer has been to write for others what I might have been delighted to be able to perform myself – but the added dividend is that writing for someone else can then become a portrait of the performer. Which makes it actually more gratifying for me than writing for myself to play, a thing I rarely do nowadays.
My first solo violin suite was written at the request of Sergiu Luca, who died two years ago -- a flamboyant and mercurial piece, it exists in a recording by Philip Ficsor. I owe him the birth of my most-often-played violin sonata and a violin concerto, both inspired by Serge's relationship with the great jazzman Joe Venuti and brilliantly recorded by Luca. A few seasons ago the violin concerto was executed by Gil Shaham and the Toronto Symphony under Leonard Slatkin; his almost opposite approach from Luca's also worked extremely well, proving the possible success of performing a piece more than one way.
The solo suite I wrote for Gil is very different in mood from the first suite, lyrical and playful by turns. Distantly referring to the Baroque dance-suite form, Suite No. 2 is in nine movements. Morning Music, a short rhapsodic prelude, leads to the lively Dancing in Place, featuring "fingerboard notes" executed by drumming the left-hand fingers onto the string and board. Northern Nigun is a gentle lament, and Lenny in Spats is a fanciful image of Leonard Bernstein dressed like Fred Astaire or Jack Buchanan in tuxedo, white spats covering his patent-leather uppers, and dancing with a cane.
Tempo di Gavotte is however not in the Baroque gavotte form; Barcarolle, in 12/8 and 6/8 time, portrays a leisurely afternoon on the water. A two-voiced Fuga malinconica provides a tragic mood to the Suite, while the following Tarantella's frenzy recalls the legendary centuries-old belief that wild dancing would neutralize a tarantula's poisonous bite. The concluding Evening Music recalls the opening phrase of the suite and ends with "duettini" in double stops, pairing different sets of strings for a peaceful close.
--- WILLIAM BOLCOM
William Bolcom was also there, flying in for the East Coast premiere of his Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin: nine character pieces leveraging Shaham's ability to create perfectly honed moments — offhand punctuations in "Morning Music," slippery, jazzy harmonics in "Lenny in Spats" (a Bernstein-Astaire homage), a "Barcarolle" of shadowy double stops and jabbed pizzicato punctuation. Bolcom himself took to the piano, leading a "Happy Birthday" serenade to his wife, then returned for an encore, accompanying Shaham in his own "Graceful Ghost Rag."
— Matthew Guerrieri, The Boston Globe