The odds were slim that Baird Dodge, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal second violin, and James Matheson, a New York-based composer, would have met some 25 years ago while attending Swarthmore College. Though Dodge studied violin at The Juilliard School in its pre-college division, his undergraduate major at Swarthmore was chemistry. Matheson, born in the Midwest, was a philosophy and music major, yet his preferred instrument was electric guitar, which he played in a rock band.
But strike up a friendship they did, and Dodge is the featured soloist with the CSO in a new CD release from Yarlung Records that features Matheson’s Violin Concerto, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. A co-commission with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the piece was written for Dodge and recorded during its world premiere performances in December 2011 at Symphony Center.
“Neither of us headed to college to be musicians,” Dodge said. “I know Jim played some piano and played bass in a rock band. I had a lot of violin background. I loved music, but there were a lot of things I was interested in.”
“We met through the music department,” Matheson said. “Baird was a chemistry major, but he was concertmaster of the orchestra and in the college string quartet. He was in the music building a lot. Swarthmore is a small school; I think there were 1,300 students when we were there. So two musicians can’t help but run into each other.”
During Matheson’s senior year, the two roomed together and Matheson wrote a solo violin work for Dodge. “He was playing in some regional orchestras,” Matheson said. “During my senior year, I had to write a piece [to fulfill an academic requirement], and he wanted me to write something for him, so I did.”
Matheson’s composition teacher, Swarthmore professor Gerald Levinson, encouraged the two to work together. At the time, neither was certain that they would forge careers in music. “He encouraged us not to limit our thinking,” said Dodge. “He said, ‘It’s great that Jim is an exciting young composer and Baird is a budding young violinist.’ He was giving us both the benefit of the doubt. But he said this is how you can really achieve something, having collaborations that grow.”
In 1996, two years after earning a master’s degree at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Dodge joined the CSO as a violist. He soon switched to the second violins and became principal of that section in 2002. Always interested in contemporary music, he performed several Matheson pieces on the CSO’s MusicNOW contemporary music series. In 1997, having established a thriving career as a composer, Matheson wrote another work for Dodge, a piece for solo violin and chamber orchestra titled Sleep. After joining the CSO, Dodge hoped to commission a full orchestral work from his friend.
Dodge proposed that the CSO commission a violin concerto from Matheson, and the CSO’s artistic staff approved the idea. “The CSO is really generous about valuing and trusting its musicians,” he said. “I don’t think every orchestra is like that.”
But Dodge also needed to find a conductor willing to learn and lead the brand-new concerto. Salonen, a frequent CSO guest conductor, knew Matheson’s work and agreed to conduct the world premiere.
Reviewing the Dec. 15, 2011, performance at Symphony Center, the Chicago Tribune called Matheson’s concerto “a supercharged showpiece for virtuoso violinist and orchestra that connects with the listener on a visceral as well as intellectual level. … [It is] neo-romantic in over-all flavor.”
“Jim has experimented with different styles,” Dodge said. “In college, he took a more academic approach. But even then, his music had a sort of personal, visceral, emotional impact. It always held my ear.”
The two worked closely on the concerto, conferring online or by phone.
“At some points, he would send me a new passage,” Dodge said. “He wanted me to vet passages for difficulty, whether they were idiomatic for the violin. We did some of that going back and forth, but when a passage was really difficult, I didn’t want to be dumbing it down. He was setting out to write challenging, virtuoso music, and I wanted to see him take a risk and do something new and something spectacular.”
His father, Charles Dodge, is a composer, and so not surprisingly, his son is deeply committed to music being written today.
“I love Schubert and Scarlatti. I love a lot more old music than I even get to play in my career,” Dodge said. “But I don’t understand why somebody wouldn’t also want to have the added excitement of new worlds of expression. I feel like it would be essentially a retreat from the world to not look for new art that relates to being alive in 2016. I love playing Brahms, but I want to know what the music of my time is. We all have to create it and perform it and encourage the composers who are writing it, or it simply won’t [exist].”
Wynne Delacoma, classical music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 t0 2006, is a Chicago-based arts journalist and lecturer.
TOP: James Matheson and Baird Dodge take their bows after the CSO’s world-premiere performance of the composer’s Violin Concerto. | Todd Rosenberg Photography
From YouTube: James Matheson comments on his Violin Concerto: