How did the first ideas for this work come together?

It was in Adelaide last Christmas, staying up in the Adelaide Hills, and I just started to write it – a couple of arpeggios and I was off. A couple of little upward motions. They were the first ideas and the piece just kept growing from there.

Did you have Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in mind when you began? 

Everybody knows the Bach. There aren’t actually that many double concertos, for two violins, I’m sure there’s Vivaldi and there’s the Malcolm Arnold, but that’s about it as far as I know – there may be some French Baroque ones, but it’s an interesting genre because you have the relationship of the soloists to each other, the relationship of the soloists to the orchestra, so it’s a very rich genre. You can do a lot with it.

Richard Mills, Melbourne Chamber OrchestraComposer Richard Mills. Photo: supplied

How have you managed those relationships in your work?

I suppose the short answer to that – without buying into it – is in what I hope is an interesting way! The longer version is I guess I’ve slanted the interest in the interplay between the two soloists, because the orchestral accompaniment is fairly simple – it’s a simple, small string orchestra – So the main musical content of the piece is in the solo lines.

What were some of the challenges of working in this line-up?

It’s actually a beautiful medium to write for, because the simplicity of the medium – the two violins and the strings – frees you in a funny kind of way and frees your fantasy. It’s not as though it’s a complex medium, but there are many colours that you can find in it as well. And I guess rather than just colouristic effects, it focusses the mind on counterpoint, which is for me still very important – basically the contrapuntal interest of the two soloists and their relationship with the orchestra on various levels.

Sitting back to back with the Bach, how do you think the two works talk to each other?

It shares various things with the Bach. Of course there’s no continuo, so there’s no keyboard in it – no harpsichord – so in that way it’s simpler and a purer sound. It shares a polyphonic vocabulary, but of course the interesting thing about the Bach Double is the individual lines themselves are implicitly contrapuntal, so in some ways it’s in four parts – there’s a counterpoint of register. You could almost divide it, you could arrange one of the solo lines very easily for two violins. There’s this implicit counterpoint in the Bach as well, the ear always seeks to make things orderly – the ear simplifies, always. It doesn’t make things more complex, our hearing – our perception – tends to look for patterns and simplicity.

Do you see the double concerto as a departure from your previous work in any way?

Not really – it’s recognisably me, has the same little mannerisms, I suppose. It’s very rhythmic. It does have some complicated ad libitum textures where the soloists are free and the orchestra is fixed to create an interesting kind of tension, but the music perhaps is more tonal for me than usual.

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, Richard MillsThe Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s string orchestra. Photo: supplied

What have been for you the pleasures of writing this piece?

Well, writing a piece that I think will be useful, that can be played by two competent violinists, that doesn’t need great virtuosos to play it – it needs fine players, certainly – but it’s not so impossibly difficult only a few people in the world can play it. It was a commission and the idea was to create an Australian Double Concerto that could be used by Australian soloists and I hope I’ve done that.

Have you written it in the conventional three movements?

Yes. It’s a Fantasia, Canzone and a Dithyramb, a Danza di Brunswick.

Can you tell me about that last one?

Well a dithyramb is a sort of Dionysian dance and [Brunswick] is our suburb – a true son of Brunswick. There are so many different cultures here, we’ve got Arabic and Greek influences – it’s not ethnic music by any stretch of the imagination but it shares some of the folkloric energy of those cultures – Turkish, Arab, Greek, Armenian, Italian. I live in a very interesting urban environment, and I think that reflects in some ways in my music.

In that sense then is your music quite rooted in your own day to day life?

Oh yeah. The marvellous thing about getting older is you can write what you like. I’m not interested in fashion or keeping up with the Joneses in any way. It’s music which pleases me – which I think is important – which I’d like to listen to. So hopefully an audience will. I mean, call me old fashioned but I still write for a listening public.


The Melbourne Chamber Orchestra performs Richard Mills’ new Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra at The Deakin Edge on November 22 and Melbourne Recital Centre on November 25

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