On 11 March Lawrence Power gives the premiere of Cassandra Miller’s I cannot love without trembling for viola and orchestra, with Ilan Volkov, a longstanding supporter of Miller’s music, conducting the Brussels Philharmonic at Studio 4, Flagey in the 25-minute piece.

I cannot love without trembling was co-commissioned by BBC Radio 3, Brussels Philharmonic, Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, and Scottish Chamber Orchestra, supported by The Viola Commissioning Circle. It takes its title from the writings of Simone Weil and draws on the music-making of Epirot violinist Alexis Zoumbas, who left his mountainous homeland in Greece for the United States. Recordings of his improvised moiroloi compositions, lamenting funeral music associated with the women of Epirus, provided Miller another creative impetus. 

It is cast in one unbroken span with five sections (four verses with a concluding cadenza), each one titled after a quotation from Weil: ‘To love purely is to consent to distance’; ‘I cannot love without trembling’; ‘Buried deep under the sound of his own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God’; ‘Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer’; ‘Stars and blossoming fruit trees: Utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sense of eternity’.

Miller says of the piece,

This concerto is about the basic human need to lament, that is, to speak the distance / sing the separation (in a trajectory loosely narrated by the Weil quotations that name each of the concerto’s sections). It is also about Alexis Zoumbas. Using one of his moiroloi recordings as a source, I sang-along many times (first to Zoumbas, then to myself) in a ritualised, meditative process I call ‘automatic singing’. This method transformed the moiroloi into the violist’s trembling-loving-mourning sighs. Within Zoumbas’ plaintive song, I sought a metaphysical space in which to dream —a space of separation-connection-absence-presence—in the hope to lament and to dream together in this hall tonight.

Lawrence Power gives the UK premiere of I cannot love without trembling on 4 May at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, where John Storgårds conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. On June 11 Storgårds will conduct the BBC Philharmonic in a performance of La Donna at the Aldeburgh Festival, where Miller is an artist-in-focus this year.

The concerto will be Miller’s second piece for Lawrence Power, following 2020’s Daylonging, Slacktide, which received its world premiere online in a performance filmed in and around Snape Maltings.