The violinist speaks about his collaborations with composer Missy Mazzoli


Peter Herresthal © Mats Bäcker

Discover more Featured Stories like this in The Strad Playing Hub

It was Peggy Monastra, a long time friend and publisher for some of my closest composer friends Kaija Saariaho and Per Nørgård who said, ’You have to meet Missy Mazzoli!’

So we met for dinner during one of my yearly trips as visiting professor to New York University. We have been working together since!

I had listened through a lot of her music and looked at some scores before we met. Two particular pieces immediately got to me; Vespers for Violin with electronics and her new double bass concerto Dark with Excessive Bright.

I thought about how the bass is deep below the string orchestra in the instrumentation of Missy’s concerto, when something came to my mind. I had suggested a similar thing before when Rolf Wallin made a violin version of his viola concerto for me: to flip the solo part over so the violin is on top of the orchestra. I love playing stratospherically high on the violin! Missy liked the idea and thus we started collaborating on what would become Dark with Excessive Bright for solo violin and orchestra.

Our collaboration started during Covid: after our second meeting in New York the world shut down and concerts/recording postponed multiple times.

We discussed the solo part back and forth. I recorded videos with questions and suggestions, while Missy would get back to me with adjustments and approvals. We did not meet again until the week of the premiere.  

Teaching in the US and listening to US colleagues I first thought I should work on the sustained vibrato which to me seems very important in the US school of violin playing. As a performer of modern music, intonation and awareness of vibrato use is crucial. Vibrato is one of the most beautiful effects we have but can also feel ’like a virus’ or be machine-like if it’s not linked to the expression of the music. 

After working on these details I said to Missy that I could not get my head around playing vibrato on every note in this piece and she replied, ’Please don’t!’

That was a relief to me and gradually the ’neo baroque’ inspiration of the music started working for me. The ornaments and gestures around the melody line and the driving pulse where ‘concerto grosso’ meets minimalist elements, is some of the DNA in the concerto. 

Other sound elements we gradually worked out to fit the violin were ponticello and harmonics, the mix of which is an effect that works differently on the violin and can really open the spectrum of overtones - especially in a good concert space. 

The beautiful cadenza in the middle of the concerto is full of this and the way it starts intensely and then gradually becomes a space of time, breathing and singing lines prepares for the gorgeous lyrical start of the second part.

I have also recorded Missy’s piece Vespers for Violin. I have listened to previous recordings and tried to find my own version of it with slightly different articulation and we adjusted the pitch in the electronics to blend the violin in - and there is a very nice new ending of the electronics in this recording. 

Performing this with click track and music in your ears while playing is challenging - but so rewarding. 

My first performance of the work was my very first concert after the pandemic, at the Bergen Festival with Missy on stage in front of Bergen Philharmonic and as a warm up piece for the world premiere of the concerto. 

Premiering a piece after two years of no concerts, distancing rules on stage, intense warm-up sessions with the composer in Norwegian quarantine and live TV was intense and magical. 

The CD version was recorded two days later. We also recorded a quintet version as a ’bonus track’ - a beautiful and naturally more intimate version than the larger instrumentation.

We are all shaped by musical meetings with other musicians. For me working with the living composers is the most creative process as a musician and recording with them present is something I have done in almost all of my 22 concertos recorded. There is no technical tradition or generations of conveyed interpretation telling you how to perform. 

My advice is to prepare a fresh score thoroughly, not shaping the new piece in the same frame like the music you have played previously. Search for the composer’s intentions in the score before you approach and then start the creative process together.

Living with the music on stage is of course a huge part of the process. One of the highlights performing Missy’s concerto was the concert with the Atlanta Symphony the day Nathalie Stutzman was announced new chief conductor and Missy announced Musical America’s composer of the year. Nathalie, a fantastic baroque singer in addition to being one of the world’s leading conductors, really gave me some new perspectives and confirmed my gut feeling that I could easily have been taken by the baroque wave in the 1990s myself.

Dark with Excessive Bright is out now on BIS Records. Listen to the album here.

Best of Technique

In The Best of Technique you’ll discover the top playing tips of the world’s leading string players and teachers. It’s packed full of exercises for students, plus examples from the standard repertoire to show you how to integrate the technique into your playing.


The Strad’s Masterclass series brings together the finest string players with some of the greatest string works ever written. Always one of our most popular sections, Masterclass has been an invaluable aid to aspiring soloists, chamber musicians and string teachers since the 1990s.


This year’s calendar celebrates the top instruments played by members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony, Australian String Quartet and some of the country’s greatest soloists.