It's been a good year for writing music. During that time I've written Blue Grass, for the New Purple Forbidden City Orchestra of Beijing, Shadowing Satie for Ensemble PTYX in France, and Dance-o-Rama for Topology in Brisbane. But the most unexpected piece I wrote is a concerto for piano and orchestra. Here's how it came about.
Bruce Brubaker and I became friends shortly after his recording Time Curve appeared in 2009. Since then, we've been meeting for lunch several times a year. This past November Bruce asked if I would consider writing a piano concerto. I hadn't really thought about it before, and didn't say yes on the spot, but the idea had instant appeal for me. Why not? I had just finished Dance-o-Rama and was looking for a new project. Plus, the prospect of having someone of Bruce's caliber play it made it even more appealing.
I began by listening to a lot of piano concerti – five or six by Mozart, and individual ones by Beethoven, Schumann, Grieg, Bartok, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff from the standard repertoire; Gao Ping and Peter Sculthorpe, among others, from today. I wanted to hear how each composer handled the interaction, the give and take, the more intimate discussions between piano and orchestra. What I found was that Mozart creates a dialogue, a flow that moves back and forth in both orderly and natural ways. By the time of Beethoven, however, this dialogue too often becomes drama – too much seizing of the moment, too little reflecting on why. The reason for this, I decided – beyond the changing aesthetics of the time – was the ever-increasing size of the orchestra: some 24 players for Mozart, 50 or more for Beethoven, and 85 plus for the composers beyond. So somewhere between early Mozart and late Beethoven, drama overpowered intimacy and interrupted the delicacy of detail that Mozart often achieved. (This, incidentally, was a surprise that I didn't expect to find.)
In writing the concerto for Bruce I opted for dialogue and chose an orchestra somewhere between that of Mozart and of Beethoven, feeling that what I might lose in orchestral color I would gain in clarity and intimate expression. This established the Classical side of the composition, an important element to have, given that the concerto also has a Romantic side consisting of 8- and 9-note scales, principal rhythms that occur mostly on the off-beat, and melodies written within expressive ranges limited enough to be familiar to any beginning piano student. It even ends with a Mannheim Rocket (but not the Mannheim Roller, or the Sigh).
And how did all of this work? Pretty well, I think. At this point, BIG PIANO (7 movements, 24 minutes) is finished and at the copyist. It should be ready to give to Bruce within a month. And what will he think? I don't know, but I'm looking forward to finding out.