Fifteen years ago, I performed Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Manuel de Falla. It was in Paris, with the Radio France Philharmonic. I never saw or heard that performance, although I knew it had been televised by the French national tv. Just a few days ago, I obtained a copy of the recording. It brought back many memories, and it reminded me of why I love this piece. It also made me ask myself: why have I not played it again, after that performance in Paris? I guess the opportunity never came, and I have been playing so much repertoire since then… Never say never, though. Right?
Originally conceived as Nocturnes for the piano, these three movements are best described using the composer’s own words: “Symphonic Impressions”. The piano plays here a wonderful role, and a very different one from that of the traditional romantic concertos: it is a co-protagonist, rather than a protagonist. The orchestral part is luscious, and the whole is as evocative as any music I know.
I first came into contact with the work of Italian composer Roberto Piana about three years ago. When I first heard his music, I was struck by the sheer depth, beauty, and directness of it. No affectation of any kind. Roberto’s language is uniquely his own, but rooted in tradition, blending the romantic, post-romantic, impressionistic, and modern idioms with a melodic vein that I can only describe as Italian, in the best sense of the word. Sometimes he also uses harmonic and rhythmic patterns that come from popular music, and even jazz. His deep knowledge and understanding of compositional styles and techniques from early to contemporary music allows him to have a vast array of devices at his disposal, all of which are masterfully used. He is not the kind of composer who rejects a type of language or a compositional technique just because they have already been used before (fortunately!), but he makes everything his own.
I have never liked very much composers who ignored and scorned anything that preceded them, as if they grew up in a vacuum and music started with them. Unfortunately, there were quite a few like that in the second half of the 20th century, and they were the ones who shouted the loudest, attacking anybody who dared innovate from within tradition, and seizing the limelight, so to speak.
I think it is as a result of their work, and of their shouting, that nowadays almost no one cares to listen to contemporary composers. There is true fright on the part of concert organizers, and to some extent record labels, when you propose to play music written by people who are still alive, or who passed away less than 70 years ago, because they know the public tends to stay away from that music, rejecting the very idea of contemporary classical music as a whole, without even listening to any of it. Those tyrannical few composers who shouted the loudest accomplished something terrible: to make the public at large believe that all contemporary composers sounded like them. And that is a pity, because there is a lot out there that is beautiful, that can really enrich our lives, and that is worth listening to. In truth, the last 70 years seem to me to be one of the most eclectic, interesting and varied eras in music. But I digress…….
What I find most fascinating in Roberto Piana’s music is that it flows completely naturally, and apparently effortlessly. It is based on traditional techniques, and it is mostly tonal in its harmonic frame, yet it sounds modern, current, to me.
In composing these “25 Preludi Pittorici”, Roberto was able to create a large cohesive work (about 29′) made of twenty-five short pieces, each inspired by a different painting. Not only that, but the paintings come from artists with hardly any connection among them, from different countries, eras, styles, and depicting broadly varied subjects. These “Pictorial Preludes”, in my opinion, are a masterpiece. The way Roberto evokes the paintings through his music is absolutely wonderful. The paintings themselves are gorgeous. The sea is a recurring subject, from the beginning in Preludes 1, 2, 3, and then in the last one, 25. Then there is a prominent presence, if not in number at least in weight and position occupied within the general architecture of the work, of the religious subject. There is also the comical (Don Quijote), the ironic (La Risata), the reverent and learned (portrait of Bach), the tender (mother and child) and much, much more. The cohesiveness of the work through these many changes of character is assured by thematic relationships, sometimes subtle, sometimes more evident. The paintings are extremely important, yet I am convinced that if Roberto had not disclosed his source of inspiration, I would still find thousands of images evoked by the music, and I would love the work just the same, as absolute, pure music.
I hope you enjoy listening to one of my favorite contemporary works!
As I get ready to perform the Five Beethoven Concertos with Maestro Theodore Kuchar and the Fresno Philharmonic on March 13, 14, and 15, I find myself more and more in awe of this Music. It’s not that I realize only now how great these pieces are. It’s just that, as I have them all in my fingers, mind, heart, and soul, I feel I am better able to contemplate them in their totality.
From first to last, the Five Concertos extend across roughly 16 years of Beethoven’s life, from 1795 to 1811, and that’s only considering the publication years. In reality, the first of these Concertos, the Bb Major, Op.19, was composed likely between 1787 and 1789, but published after the C Major, Op.15. At that point, Beethoven had already used all the numbers in his catalogue for other compositions, and was forced to assign to it the Opus number 19, thus making it his “Second”.
Every single one of these Concertos is an absolute masterpiece. As a set, they show the evolution of Beethoven’s language, and the explosion of his creative powers which propelled him forward, blazing new paths in a way that goes above and beyond any classification. I find it very difficult to say, for instance, that his Concertos NN. 3, 4 and 5 are “classical”. Beethoven cannot really be categorized, if not maybe in his very early output.
In this amazing journey through the Five Concertos, I hear Beethoven’s quest as an individual to harness the Universal, and crystallize it into perfect musical structures. The impact of these Concertos goes well beyond the music world. They stand as eternal proof of the greatness that humans can attain, transcending their inherent flaws.
Here is an archival recording of a live performance of the “Emperor” Concerto, Op.73. It is from 2010. I played it (with all my inherent flaws) with the North Carolina Symphony under the baton of Maestro Grant Llewellyn, a wonderful musician, and one of my favorite musical partners. This Concerto truly is regal. Beethoven did not suggest the title, though. It was Johann Baptist Cramer who dubbed it the “Emperor” when he published it in England. Very fitting, don’t you think?
“Music is a means capable of expressing dark dramatism and pure rapture, suffering and ecstasy, fiery and cold fury, melancholy and wild merriment-and the subtlest nuances and interplay of these feelings which words are powerless to express and which are unattainable in painting and sculpture.”
- Dmitri Shostakovich
It seems to me that the above quote applies perfectly to the First Piano Concerto of Shostakovich, a beautiful piece for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra. A few years ago I had the privilege of performing it with the fabulous Alison Balsom, the Colorado Symphony, and conductor Edward Gardner. It was wonderful to share the stage and make music with such incredible artists.
Few composers can make us stare into the darkness, and show us that, though repulsive, it has a comical side. I believe that in his First Piano Concerto, as in many other works, Shostakovich really shows us the meaning of the word “grotesque“.