On June 3, 2023, I will have the pleasure of collaborating with the wonderful violinist Chase Spruill as our soloist in Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, at the Mondavi Center. Below is a conversation we had with Chase regarding this piece, and more:
Christian Baldini: Dear Chase, what a thrill it is to feature you as our soloist for the 1st Glass Concerto. You have been a regular collaborator of his for a long time, including your 2021 recording on his label (available here). Tell me, how did your relationship and collaboration with Philip Glass start?
Chase Spruill: I’m so happy that this is something we’re doing together– thanks for having me! I always tell people my relationship to Philip Glass began way before I ever met Philip Glass. As a kid, I was a nut about horror movies–I watched almost anything and everything I could get my hands on. One of those was the movie CANDYMAN based on a short story from Clive Barker. And I was pretty used to the formula for what horror looked like on screen back then. But Candyman came along, and you have this slow burn of a movie taking place in the former Cabrini Green area of Chicago where people are talking about gang violence, drugs, trying to raise kids out of that kind of a life situation, and in the background of it all, a mysterious entity known as The Candyman who lurks behind the violence. And the music is some of the most sublime I’d ever heard in film, using piano, pipe organ and chorus just singing syllables. I just didn’t know what in the world could be happening. It didn’t look like or sound like anything else I’d seen up to that point. And I’d always stay ’til the very final credit rolled, and if it came on again, I’d watch it again. This was all happening at the time where I was just starting to take violin seriously, so I never had a chance. I was hooked. I met and started working with the director of the Philip Glass Ensemble Michael Riesman in 2014, met Philip face-to-face in 2015, and met my friend Richard Guerin who helps run Philip’s record label in 2016 for the first recording I ever did for them. I love watching Team Philip Glass in orbit. I just sit back in amazement at all of it.
CB: Tell us about Glass’ First Violin Concerto. What should people listen for? What is very special to you about it?
CS: Philip had written so much music up to this point, but this was the piece that was solely a piece for the concert stage that really took off. He wanted to write something that his Father would enjoy, and his Dad was a big appreciator of Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, so sometimes Philip will say this piece is inspired by it, but when you’re listening to it, I’m not sure how much one really hears that inspiration. It’s so clearly his language in the form of a Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, but it’s not really a virtuoso showpiece in the way we might think of violin concertos in the past two centuries. I read somewhere that someone said something along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing) “It’s a Concerto for the whole orchestra where the violin peaks out as the top, overarching voice.” That’s what is ultimately so special to me about it. I love Teams and being part of Teams, and I love when music is effortful and group work ethic is high, so a piece where everyone is committed 100% to the language of the piece itself is right up my alley.
CB: What were your first steps with music? How did it all start? Did you ever imagine you’d be so successful? (I know, successful is a very ungrateful word, and how does one even define success?)
CS: I started playing violin in public school. It was kind of a simple thing, really. I’d always enjoyed music and musical sounds. The opportunity to be able and try it came up in 5th grade and violin was ultimately what I chose. A year later though, I was pretty seriously hurt during the school day during a basketball game with an injury that left me bedridden, wheelchair-bound and in-and-out of surgeries and rehab for two years. I was in-and-out of school and missed a lot of activities, but the thing that I had to keep me company outside of my family was my violin and movies/television, so I practiced a lot. I’d record myself playing one violin part of a duet and then play the tape back and play the other violin part live, or sit with the end-credit music of movies and try to figure out all the notes. And these are all things I kind of still do today, if you catch me in my private moments! I don’t necessarily lead an exciting life. Thank you and thanks to anyone who might say that I’m successful, because that sure is nice of anyone to say, but I don’t know that I necessarily myself feel that way. I work as hard as I can and pursue things that interest me, but I’m still that kid who likes musical sounds and gets excited about a good movie score and wants to learn how to play those notes!
CB: You have worked closely with many composers, including Michael Nyman. Tell us about these collaborations. What is important to you about them? What are some of your favorite memories from them?
CS: Anybody who knows me has probably heard me make the joke by saying I operate off a limited skill set because I really love Mozart, Glass and Nyman (maybe a Therapist could help me tease out why in the future, or if there’s a connection!), but what I’m really trying to say is I’m profoundly attached to specific ideas in music, and I want to intensively pursue my understanding of those ideas, and have an authentic love of those ideas so much so that maybe people will let me share this music with them. I obviously can’t work with Mozart, so to be able to hear Philip Glass talk about a score or an idea, or to watch Michael Nyman tease some musical construction he’s interesting in composing (and, in some cases, recomposing), it builds this sense of confidence about musical process and offers me a lot of reminders about the ways in which music and music-making can be collaborative, and how the page is just the start. The page is an intention–a really great first step. The composer depends on and is interested in the performer bringing the other part of the human element to music. These composers I work with are masters of “Yes, And!” They rarely tell me No, but they also trust that my interest in what they’re doing is rooted in genuine curiosity about their language and in what they’re trying for. One of my favorite memories was working with the composer Brian Reitzell in his soundtrack for the NBC television series Hannibal where he’d experimented with stretching out and synthesizing Bach’s Aria da Capo for a particularly devastating and bloody moment in the season two finale. I told him,” You know, this particular sound you’re making is so close to the human voice. I could totally hear a Solo Violin for this overarching line.” It was the quickest Yes I’d ever gotten, and we worked on it and he goes,” That’s devastating! I love it!” and we kept it, even though it wasn’t the original intention for the piece. It didn’t detract anything from his original intention, but I’m happy he felt it elevated it emotionally. That’s what I like! It’s the best when musical collaboration is like being a kid playing in a sandbox with a really good friend near you. You just work to see what you can build together. You’re never trying to knock anything down.
CB: What are some of your dreams, goals, future and upcoming projects that you are very excited about?
CS: My friend Richard Guerin had the idea for me to form a String Quartet called CS4 (and I always say “I didn’t name it, he did!”), but it’s a terrific opportunity to work with different kinds of friends in music. So much of what I’ve done to this point has been solo, or violin and piano, but I’d been interested for a while to expand some of my own aesthetic and rhythmic interests in music into the world of chamber music. I’m very excited we’re releasing our first recording this year, and this summer, CS4 will have its stage debut at ArtPark in Lewiston, NY near what I understand are your former stomping grounds in Buffalo, NY! We’re giving the U.S. Premiere of Philip Glass’ String Quartet no.9 (“King Lear”) which was originally commissioned for Tana Quartet which gave the World Premiere, but I’m really over the moon about the opportunity to present it throughout North America. To me, it’s such an interesting dramatic departure from his other string quartets and very surprising. It sounds like a different musical period for him in a lot of ways.
CB: That sounds absolutely wonderful, and I look forward to listening to that new recording of yours. Once again, thank you for all the beautiful music dear Chase. We are delighted that you are our soloist this week!
CS: It’s a real treat to have the chance to work with you in this capacity. I’m really happy we’re doing this! Thank you, Maestro!
Violinist Chase Spruill has gained an international reputation as a performer of contemporary music, interpreting minimalist masters such as Philip Glass, Michael Nyman and Henryk Gorecki. In 2020, BBC Music Magazine hailed his debut solo album of the music of British composer Michael Nyman, citing that “Spruill plays with great spirit . . . and a great sense of presence” and calling him, “an engaging and convincing advocate.” This same year, Capital Public Radio called him, “a breath-taking performer” with MusicWeb International highlighting that “Spruill plays with fire and yet sensitivity . . . and with absolutely secure rhythmic foundations.” He was a core faculty member with the nationally celebrated not-for-profit organization Community MusicWorks in Providence, RI, from 2012 to 2017, as well as a visiting professor of violin and orchestral studies at Wheaton College in from 2015 to 2017. Dedicated to exploring potential intersections between music and social justice, Spruill returned to his hometown in Vacaville to develop and run the music program at the new school Sierra Vista K–8 where he remains on faculty. He’s collaborated with other notable artists such as Kronos Quartet, composer/electric guitarist Steven Mackey (a UC Davis music alum ‘78), and BAFTA-nominated composer Brian Reitzell, releasing music from the critically acclaimed television series Hannibal. His recordings appear on the Philip Glass record label Orange Mountain Music and on Supertrain Records. Since 2019, Spruill has served as the concertmaster of the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, California.