Off the Page, Against the Grain

It’s the rare performer who improvises in classical music.

By Bradley Bambarger

Bielawa also wrote her Double Violin Concerto for Kihlstedt and Colin Jacobsen, who premiered it with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in 2008. To ensure an air of unpredictability from performance to performance, the composer included a cadenza of structured improvisation. Kihlstedt explains: “Lisa wrote a beginning gesture and a way out, but left the middle for us to improvise using an ornament library she created. Lisa was very hands-off about the length. That kind of trust from composer to performer is rare, and it allowed us to enter the music in a deeper way.”

When it comes to improvising, the challenge is “to hold yourself to a rigorous standard in structure and storytelling,” Kihlstedt says. “If you’re not telling a story, then you’re just throwing notes at people.”
Improvising has changed the way she practices, the violinist adds: “I don’t practice just a single way of doing something. I practice making decisions. It gives me more choices even when I play fully notated music. I’m better able to go where the music leads me in any given moment, technically and emotionally.”