PIANO CONCERTO with orchestra
Program notes by the composer
My Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was sponsored by a National Endowment for the Arts grant and was written, during the summer and fall of 1975, for a faculty colleague at the School of Music of Northern Illinois University. A series of unexpected events kept the work from being performed until July, 1981, when it was premiered at the Grant Park outdoor concert series with Sheldon Shkolnik as pianist and Christopher Keene conducting the Grant Park Symphony. The work was written for large orchestra and is in three movements, with the second and third connected; its duration is a little over thirty minutes.
The first movement, Allegro con brio, is cast in the customary sonata-allegro form, with its two primary themes -- one serious and lyrical, the other comical and angular -- developed in various ways and leading to a virtuosic cadenza. Despite its fairly serious tone, this movement includes such unusual -- for a piano concerto -- instruments as temple blocks and cowbells.
The second movement, Variazioni, is a series of variations based on William Byrd's madrigal My Sweet Little Darling and introduced by Alfred Deller in the voice-and-viols arrangement of his old Vanguard recording. Byrd's bittersweet lullaby, invoking the Gods to "bless and keep thee from cruel annoy" finds expression in the increasing violence of each new variation, a musical argument about the difficulties inherent in raising children in any violent environment (including that of the present day). Eventually, a chorus of crying and moaning unborn -- or yet-to-be-born -- children is heard in the distance immediately before the pianist's cadenza; immediately after the cadenza the movement comes to a close with a ghost-like revisitation of the theme in cello harmonics. This leads directly to the third movement, Rondo in Moto Perpetuo.
Rondo in Moto Perpetuo is announced by a Bartokian brass fanfare which actually furnishes some of the thematic material found later in this concluding movement of the concerto. The primary feature of the rondo theme, however, is that of a rhythmic ostinato in the lower register of the piano; its 7/4 meter is projected throughout the remainder of the movement and the various contrasting themes which furnish relief from this ostinato. A bit of musical theater appears near the end of the concerto, in the form of a dialogue between piano and orchestra; this idea came directly out of the composer's university orchestration classes and his fondness for comparing a performance of the piano version of a work with the recording of the work's orchestral version. In this particular instance, each gesture of the pianist is mimicked by the orchestra, which always takes the phrase one extra measure beyond what the pianist had done, in a kind of "can you top this" interplay until the pianist, in desperation, begins playing arpeggios. This is, of course the most difficult pianistic texture for an orchestra to realize, causing the ensemble to break down. In retaliation, individual members of the wind sections stand and play their own idiomatic cliches against the accompaniment provided by the pianist's arpeggios until everyone in the orchestra is standing except the cellos, of course, and the soloist -- whose opportunity to stand comes when the concerto ends and he is allowed to stand to acknowledge the applause!