EXCLUSIVE: Violinist Daniel Hope on Yehudi Menuhin, Carl Sagan and the Music of His Solo Album ‘Spheres’ on DG

By Louise Burton on Apr 11, 2014 03:15 AM EDT

I recently talked with British violinist Daniel Hope about the release of a new edition of Max Richter's Vivaldi Recomposed with Hope as violin soloist. During our conversation, he also told me the convoluted and interesting story behind the making of his most recent solo album, Spheres.

This album, released on Deutsche Grammophon in 2013, features music from the Baroque era through the present day, by J.S. Bach, Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Richter and Gabriel Prokofiev, among others.

"Almost all of the recording projects I do, I put away and then come back to them later," he said, alluding to the exceptionally long gestation of Spheres.

The germ of an idea that became this album was planted long ago--when Hope was a young boy and met the famous astronomer Carl Sagan.

At this time, his mother was violinist Yehudi Menuhin's private secretary. Hope had a few lessons with the legendary violinist, and later played in more than 60 concerts with Menuhin. Carl Sagan was a friend of Menuhin's, and one day Menuhin introduced Hope to the famous astronomer.

Hope has written, "When I was a boy, the only thing which captivated me as much as music was the night sky. At the age of eight I bought my first telescope and would spend hours gazing at the moon and stars."

Of course, meeting Sagan, the host of Cosmos on public television, was a thrilling experience for the young boy. "Sagan could explain things about the cosmos to people who weren't astronomers, and I had a million questions I wanted to ask him," Hope recalled.

One thing the famous astronomer told him has stayed with him ever since. "He told me about the music of the spheres, and said I should look into it," Hope said.

Fast-forward to two years ago: "I was listening to the radio, to a BBC program about the music of the spheres," Hope said. "This was an idea Pythagoras had: when planets go into orbit and pass each other, there is a friction that creates sound. Early astronomers believed they made music."

The BBC radio program brought back memories of his conversation with Sagan long ago, and gave him an idea for his next album: "What would the music of the spheres sound like, if you had composers write it for you?" he wondered.

As he explored this concept, he contacted the young British composer Gabriel Prokofiev to discuss his ideas. Gabriel, who lives in London, is the grandson of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. Hope is a great admirer of the younger Prokofiev's music: "He will be a very strong voice in the future," Hope predicts.

Prokofiev wrote a piece of music for Hope called "Spheres," which became the centerpiece of his new album. Listening to an excerpt of this work on Hope's website, it's possible to hear echoes of his famous grandfather in the angular violin melody.

Hope eventually chose to broaden his concept of the album. "I decided to extend that idea to include composers of all centuries who had written music that takes you to a different world," he said.

The opening piece on his album, "The Imitation of Bells," was written by Johann Paul von Westhoff, a Baroque composer who was very famous in his day but is nearly forgotten today. He was an important influence on Bach and other baroque composers. Hope describes the work as "300 years ahead of its time."

Another work is Philip Glass' "Echorus," which was written in homage to Menuhin. And the album also holds Bach's Prelude in E minor, BWV 855. "I still think of Bach as the most modern composer of all," Hope said.

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TagsDaniel Hope, Spheres, Max Richter, Vivaldi Recomposed, Deutsche Grammophon, Yehudi Menuhin, Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Gabriel Prokofiev, Sergei Prokofiev

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