Music News & Reviews

Symphony to feature 6-string electric violin

Friendship is at the heart of most musical collaborations. Add strong doses of trust, respect and admiration and you've got conductor Andrew Sewell and electric violinist Tracy Silverman.

They'll be center stage with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra next weekend, performing groundbreaking music from the present and the past.

First up on the symphony's classics program will be new works composed by Silverman — one of them is "Between the Kiss and the Chaos," written especially for these concerts and heard here for the first time.

After intermission will come the Symphony No. 5 by Mahler, a monumental work that stretched the dimensions of symphonic music when it was first played in 1904.

"Mahler's music was very contemporary for its time and charted new waters," Sewell said. "Tracy Silverman bringing an electric violin into the concert hall with an orchestra is forging new territory as well. That juxtaposition is what makes this concert work."

Silverman broke onto the music scene as a violinist with the jazz-bluegrass-classical Turtle Island String Quartet. But it is playing the six-string electric violin that he has made his mark. Silverman opened the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 playing "The Dharma at Big Sur," an electric violin piece written for him by American minimalist composer John Adams.

It was Sewell who first featured Silverman's electric violin soloing with a symphony orchestra. The two met at a New Year's concert in Toledo, Ohio, in 1999 — Silverman was music director for pianist Jim Brickman, the soloist. (Silverman still tours with Brickman.) Sewell heard part of an electric violin concerto Silverman was then composing.

"I was really impressed," Sewell recalled. "I said, 'If you ever want to complete the concerto, I'd play it.' So he did. We've been friends ever since."

Silverman's Electric Violin Concerto was first performed with Sewell and the Mansfield (Ohio) Symphony in 2002. Silverman played the concerto with the Wichita Symphony in 2003.

Silverman's latest concerto, "Between the Kiss and the Chaos," was composed for Sewell and the Wichita Symphony. The piece is in five movements; the first three will debut next weekend. Each movement is inspired by a famous artwork — Michelangelo's "David," Matisse's "Dance," Van Gogh's "Starry Night" — and each showcases the unique qualities of the electric violin.

The instrument, which Silverman helped develop, has six strings (as opposed to the acoustic violin's four); the added strings extend its range lower. The instrument is amplified; Silverman sometimes runs its bowed and plucked sounds through effect boxes like an electric guitar, creating delay, distortion, instantly recorded loops and other manipulations.

"It completely changed my technique and my approach to playing the instrument," Silverman said. "What I do with it is more similar to the way a guitar is played — playing chords, playing rhythms in a strumming kind of way.

"It opens your imagination to what the violin can do. As a composer, that gives you more options."

In addition to the brand new "Between the Kiss and the Chaos," Silverman and the orchestra will play "Anthem 25," a work commissioned by Sewell to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the summertime concerts played by Sewell's other orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, in Madison.

Silverman said his ongoing explorations of the electric violin rely on people like Sewell to make the music happen.

"The pieces would not exist if it weren't for Andrew," Silverman said. "In the classical music world, to have somebody who believes that you are going to come up with something new that is going to be worth listening to — that belief alone is something that I treasure.

"It's an incredible leap of faith. It's enormous trust he and the orchestra are giving me. That trust is inspirational."

If you go

wichita symphony orchestra

What: Classics concert with music by Silverman and Mahler, Tracy Silverman, electric violin; Andrew Sewell, conductor

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Jan. 17

How much: Tickets are $20 to $42, discounts available. For more information, visit or call 316-267-7658.