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Jay Greenberg's violin concerto has its world premiere

Jay Greenberg, the kid composer who got a big-time recording contract in the summer of 2006, had its world premiere Sunday at Carnegie Hall with Joshua Bell as soloist and Roberto Abbado leading the Orchestra of St. Luke's.

The work, which combines a teenager's rambunctiousness with a mature master's sophistication, shows that the 15-year-old composer is for real.

By the time Sony released Greenberg's first CD in August 2006, he had already written more than 100 works, including five symphonies, 17 piano sonatas and three piano concertos.

The violin concerto, written for Bell and commissioned by the chamber orchestra for its 33rd season, is Greenberg's first for the instrument.

"At one point in my life, I resolved that I would never write a violin concerto," Greenberg said in the program notes. "I no longer recall why exactly I made this resolution; perhaps it was sour grapes, as all of my attempts at violin writing up to that point had been failures."

Then, he got the commission, and he worked with Bell, himself a former child prodigy, to confront some of the problems in composing for the instrument.

The piece is hardly a failure. Greenberg skillfully leads the listener through a gamut of emotions with touches of 21st-century tonality, excitement and lyricism.

It's a compelling addition to the genre, and was a perfect companion to Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, which Bell played earlier in Sunday's program. (The concert also featured a 2002 work by another American composer, Joan Tower's moving "In Memory," and for some strange reason Haydn's Symphony No. 93.)

Greenberg's concerto starts out in a mysterious hush - a soft pizzicato, a nervous tremolo, a piano chord, and then the piccolo and clarinet playing a slow theme in unison one octave apart.

Suddenly, an angry violin chord pierces the tense peace, barging in and jumping through a violent arpeggio that gets the music off and running. The full force of the orchestra follows, with the brass going on a romp that's accented by irregular poundings of the percussion.

It soon settles back into the meandering wind doubling that seems to allude to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." A calmness prevails, leading to a descending passage that Greenberg also used in his Fifth Symphony. Then another eruption. Eventually the music accelerates to a climax and ends on a big drum beat.

Bell, who gave a commanding performance of the Barber concerto, occasionally looked at the score during Greenberg's 24-minute piece. Bell's technical prowess and sensitivity enabled him to navigate the gymnastics of the difficult solo part that covers the entire range of the instrument.

"I'm very happy," Bell said in a brief interview later. "We got through it. I really like the piece. It's growing on me more and more. Now I can't wait to actually work on the music; I was just trying to get the notes in the right place."

The audience responded with a standing ovation. Greenberg left his seat next to his parents and little brother and walked on stage, bowing self-consciously.

Asked later what he was trying to convey in the work that took him about six months to write, he deadpanned: "I don't know. I never figured that out."

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