The Witching Hour was commissioned by the Australian World Orchestra in celebration of their fifth anniversary season in 2016 through the support of Renata Kaldor AO and Andrew Kaldor AM and Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. It is a concerto for Eight Doublebasses and Orchestra based on the famous Russian story "Vassilissa the Beautiful". It was premiered in September 2016 at the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House by Kees Boersma, Timothy Dunin, Alex Henery, Max McBride, Kirsty McCahon, Matthew McDonald, Robert Nairn, Ciro Vigilante and The Australian World Orchestra conducted by Alexander Briger.
The four movements of the concerto each correspond to an episode in the story which is full of enchantment, drama and strength. Vassilissa is a tale from my childhood, I always loved the idea of this little girl who can achieve over the biggest obstacles and defy the odds.
The narrative centres around Vassilissa who is renowned for her fair beauty. She is given a little wooden doll by her mother which turns out to have magic powers. The doll helps Vassilissa overcome many trials and hardships, including a terrifying encounter with the flesh-eating witch Baba Yaga.
The eight bass soloists represent some of the finest talent in the world. In discussing this commmission Alexander Briger and I wanted to find a way to bring their musicianship and skill into the spotlight. I did a couple of workshops with two of the featured soloists, the fabulous Kees Boersma and Kirsty McCahon trying out ideas, ranges and combinations.
The basses often play as foursomes, in pairs and sometimes as individuals. A lot of the material is placed in the high register of the bass, all the better to let the instrument shine more and cut through the texture.
The first movement is Spectres in the Forest. In this episode Vassilissa is sent by her step mother into the forboding darkness of the woods to ask Baba Yaga for light. She becomes lost and is confronted by the delighted ghouls and spirits who are only too happy to intimidate her, encircling her with their exhuberant and spooky dances. After a distant and mysterious opening in Harp, Celeste intertwined with Violins' harmonics, the basses enter with their first lyrical melody introducing the main character. The music then transforms into syncopated and energised rhythms with leaps and runs as the supernatural forest-dwellers emerge.
The Wooden Doll Awakens is the second movement. At the start of it Oboe, Clarinet and Saxophone take turns introducing the dolls' Cantabile theme before it turns into a full-blown waltz. Here Vassilissa discovers the Doll's powers for the first time when it comes to life. The Doll's waltz is grand and fleet: scurrying, busy and revealing all the aspects of its colourful personality. The basses have a chorale cadenza featuring their unique harmonics.
In Elegy, Vassilissa and her father are struck by a terrible grief when her mother dies, leaving them both alone. Here the basses start, only accompanied by bassoons and timpani. The music is Russian inspired, measured and solemn.
The last movement is Vassilissa the Beautiful. She is challenged by Baba Yaga to perform a series of tasks. If she does not complete them she will be eaten. The music begins with pizzicato strings, then becomes more tumultous and war-like. In time, the true goodness of Vassilissa becomes more and more present as she heads for triumph and the music starts to shift towards major keys.
“The Witching Hour necessitated something of a role reversal as the eight mighty soloists shifted from the back row into the front, the size of their basses an impressive sight to behold… the concerto explores episodes from the traditional Russian tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful, a resourceful little girl who outwits a wicked witch thanks to some help from a magic doll… All hell erupts, replete with wacky percussion, the eight soloists galumphing away over the top of it all… It's all great fun and full of energy, as Vasilisa tackles the various tasks set her by the gruesome enchantress.”
“The Witching Hour highlighted Kats-Chernin’s distinctive compositional gifts. All four movements were dominated by appealing melodies and catchy rhythms, while her beguiling orchestrations provided a colourful and, at times, eerie backdrop.”