[Living Language] showed an eagerness to embrace a broad musical landscape. Visconti’s 30-minute score, which featured a nimble solo turn by guitarist Jason Vieaux, turned out to be as much a polemical statement as an artistic creation. The composer’s thesis, underscored by his title, is that the world of contemporary classical music is broad and vital enough to encompass stylistic multitudes.
Visconti’s piece begins with an expansive solo in which the guitar intones a note-bending aria over droning string, in imitation of a sitar. It’s a beautiful sequence (and it makes a welcome return just before the concerto’s end), but it doesn’t linger long enough to register fully. Soon Visconti is off to the next thing, and before the piece has run its course he will have conjured up prog rock, neoclassicism, heavy metal, Arabian folk music, country blues and several others.
Living Language boasts several passages of crystalline inventiveness (a one-on-one conversation between the guitar and the principal horn is particularly telling), but it’s hard to focus on any given episode with the next one already taking shape over the horizon.
—San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman (May 2016) full review
Composer Dan Visconti, a resident of Chicago who’s 34 this year, has titled his new piece Living Language in recognition of his firm belief that classical music still is one, despite various gloomy prognostications. Entirely eschewing the sardonic whimsy I’ve heard in other pieces of his, Visconti has dealt with the problem of a guitar being quieter than an orchestra by keeping the orchestra quieter than the guitar. Only briefly, in the last of three connected movements, did the orchestra ever play more than a couple notes in forte — over the guitar or without it.
Jason Vieaux began the work casually, giving a few unaccompanied notes with long pauses between them. His excellent performance throughout was most remarkable here. Each firmly resonant note passed through three or four pitches and as many tone colors before fading away. Soon the guitar was joined by the quiet sheen of a single held note in the second violins. Gradually, Vieaux picked up a little speed, plus some harmonies from Indian classical music. Eventually some soft percussion came in, then the rest of the strings.
As the concerto proceeded, it became busier and somewhat more energetic. Harp and flute got a little to say. Hints of livelier music appeared occasionally: flamenco strums and snaps on the guitar, then a bit of klezmer in the orchestra…At least some of these hints were deliberate: Visconti was aiming for a tour of world music. Yet the concerto remained gentle, hushed, and transparent throughout, even while many were playing. Visconti’s skill at orchestration keeping it so was admirable. This concerto sounded quite unlike other modern guitar concertos by Rodrigo or others, yet it was, like their work, consonant, pleasurable, and satisfying.
Visconti, currently in his second of three seasons as the [California] Symphony’s Young American Composer in Residence — Cabrera conducted his Breakdown last season — crafts a vast canvas in Living Language. The three-movement score, performed without pause, takes its inspiration from styles and traditions ranging from medieval chant to 20th-century minimalism. The composer refers to the sounds of other cultures throughout the piece; one hears echoes of the Indian sitar, the Middle Eastern oud and Spanish flamenco guitar.
The guitar takes the lead from the start of the 25-minute concerto, introducing themes that are then distributed throughout the orchestra. Bended, unaccompanied guitar notes introduce the meditative first movement, joined by shimmering violins and subdued percussion. The music grows denser as it progresses. Woodwinds and brass engage as the guitar becomes more assertive in chugging, raga-type runs. A small army of percussion instruments adds to the mix…Living Language also yields lyrical episodes that charm the ear. A call-and-response between Vieaux’s guitar and harp, played by Naomi Hoffmeyer, was especially lovely.