Title: Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra
Year Completed: 2011
Duration: 23 mins
Instrumentation: 3333/4331/timp+3/hp,pf/str-qt/str (note: with amplified string quartet)
Credits: Commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with funding from the Canada Council for the Arts
Premiere: Saturday, March 3, 2012, 7:30 pm New Creations Festival, Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, ON: Kronos Quartet and the TSO conducted by Peter Oundjian.


Full score and parts: Canadian Music Centre
Piano Reduction: Canadian Music Centre

Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra is essentially derived from one gesture: an open voiced, broken triad. This may be an overstatement, but it’s (mostly) true. In the opening, a fantasia of swirling, chromatic, and highly active material tosses our little triad about in ascending and descending chromatic flourishes. Several ideas are foreshadowed; of particular importance the very first glissando (on harp and piano) will reoccur at the end. Rather than opening as a concerto for string quartet, the work begins for string quintet. During the first five minutes, the conductor, or concertmaster, is asked to participate equally with the solo quartet. As the opening fantasia unfolds, several high soaring violin solos are heard, followed by a longer sequence where the solo violins continue unabashedly riffing on broken triads while a lyric, but highly disjunct melody, is performed by the other three soloists. The material coalesces into an oscillation of limited chord successions. Growing increasingly frantic, there is a sudden silence; followed by an abrupt orchestra tutti.

The first theme (part one) emerges from this tumultuous opening: a melody, built from the reminiscence of earlier broken triads is accompanied by a clear harmonic motion ascending in thirds. This is the longest section of the concerto, and develops through repetition and variation. Ideas are recast several times but nothing ever repeats exactly the same. Circle bowing is heard again, briefly, as the melody ebbs and flows, leading steadily towards a gradual frenzy. Percussive, toe-tapping rhythmic patterns are encountered as the bass drum becomes a driving force, carrying the beat, much like the unremitting pulse of so much pop and rock music––the use of popular idioms are never emphatically implied, but they are hinted at. A hemiola figure, a three against four pattern, subversively divides the main pulse. At around twelve minutes, a short tutti transition leads us to part two.

In part two, a second theme is introduced. Modal melodies are derived from rhythmic patterns obtained from random text. The melodies are set as rounds, a contrapuntal technique akin to singing Frère Jacques. The orchestration increasingly becomes sprightly, and after several culminating moments the hemiola returns, now highlighted in the solo quartet. Right ‘wrong’ notes incessantly interrupt from deep below. After a brief silence, material builds emphatically to a swirling, tango-like climax. The music is quite literally torn apart, and while the solo quartet flails stoically on large open triads, the orchestra comes crashing down––chromatic descending figurations hurl us to the coda. A lilting, lachrymose conclusion in 13/16 begins, echoing fragments from the fallen material. A prerecorded soundscape enters: narwhals and ring seals are heard; their piercing sonority of descending cries echo the descending fragmentations of the recent climax. It is fascinating that these sounds have not been synthesized––they are exactly as I recorded them in the high arctic, under the ice in Baffin Bay (near Pond Inlet, Nunavut). This surreal, underwater language accompanies us to the end.

I wish to thank the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian, Music director, and the Kronos Quartet, for providing me this wonderful opportunity.


“A full house (almost) at Roy Thomson Hall—for a concert of New Music? Yes! And standing ovations that wouldn’t quit for the première of Derek Charke’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra? Too right! Charke’s music is eclectic, hectic and sometimes electric. The concerto’s finale is a post-climactic mix of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing mournfully, while out of the speaker system issue loud chords by Kronos String Quartet infused into a taped soundscape of eerie narwhal and ring seal vocalizations that is simply beautiful. It prepares a silence that is the hallmark of a fulfilled audience resting before an explosion of appreciation. Backing up from the concerto’s finale we find ourselves excited by a toe-tapping, percussive frenzy of rhythms driving in successive, serialist waves that rock the room like its back ain’t got no bone. And backing up towards the beginning we get broken bits of sound and silence that gather into oscillating melodies broken by guttural grunts, yells and cries by Kronos. Listening backwards or forwards, Charke’s music is about the freedom to be an individual, and the audience got it.” – Stanley Fefferman, Opus One Review

“This composition was a gem of musical genius, embodying a vast variety of diverse emotions and themes into a single piece. The final descent from celebration led into a darker and mysterious theme featuring the soundscape technique with distinct seal, whale and dolphin sounds. This immense sense of imagination and imagery concluded the piece, earning the performers and the composer a well-deserved standing ovation." – Daniel Frasca, Bachtrack.com

"With this concerto, Charke staked out a vast sound-world as his musical territory. His horizons are very broad – encompassing not just the fragmented syntax of Widmann or the subtle timbres of Eotvos, but also familiar modal harmonies, a steady, danceable beat and even a dash of Hollywood film-score glitz. As if that weren’t enough, there was also some shouting from the orchestra players, and prerecorded seals and narwhals from Nunavut." – Colin Eatock, The Globe and Mail


A reduced version with piano accompaniment is available from the Canadian Music Centre.

1 Piccolo
2 Flutes
2 Oboes
1 English Horn
2 Clarinets in Bb
1 Bass Clarinet
2 Bassoons
1 Contrabassoon

4 Horns in F
3 Trumpets in C
2 Tenor Trombones
1 Bass Trombone
1 Tuba

3 Percussion

Amplified String Quartet **

Orchestra Strings

** Solo string quartet should be placed in front of a plexiglass 'shell' to assist with the amplification, and to distinguish the quartet from the orchestra strings.

derek charke concerto for string quartet