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I've wanted to write a Piano Concerto since I was 17 - so it's been gestating in my head for nearly 30 years - and though I've changed profoundly as a musician in that time, my musical taste hasn't. I'm still obsessed with the piano concerto as a musical and dramatic concept, and now that I've finally written my own, it's inevitable that it tips its hat to my all-time compositional heroes from time to time (Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Bartok, and Ravel) - all of them being masters of writing for the form.
Piano Concertos have long been stereotyped as romantic, sweeping and epic. I've taken a hint of that on board, but for the most part I've focused on darker symphonic explorations. There is an ominous urgency to much of the first and third movements, while the second has an almost machine like atmosphere. A friend described the piece as "...a stormy sea, beautiful and violent", and much of my music relates to the sea in some way, as I've never lived far from it. There are moments of delicate glinting water in sunlight, and apocalyptic climaxes of churning sea swell.
Starting with very little, the first movement opens with a pianissimo shimmering chord in the violins, and an angular yet simple piano melody floating above - the simplicity of the single melodic line, played with just the right hand, belying the complexity to come. As the textures build up, the piano writing becomes denser and denser until it finally takes off on a wild and diabolically virtuosic ride in 5/4. The piano is occasionally interrupted by rhythmic punctuations, predominantly from the timpani and tom toms, and then later on from the metallic percussion instruments - glockenspiel, crotales, and bells. The movement culminates in a screaming proclamation of the opening material on the metallic percussion - the hypnotic calm transformed into violent anguish.
The second movement is more playful, and exploits some of the interlocking techniques I've explored in many of my previous works. Like the first movement, it begins with utter simplicity - an interlocking duet between the highest note of the piano and the highest note of the xylophone. While I wouldn't go as far as calling this a comic moment, I certainly had a smile on my face when I wrote it. One by one, other instruments join the texture with their own repeated note motifs. Despite the quirkiness of this opening, there is still an ominous cloud hanging over the music. The piano alternates this texture with moody (but still deliberately non-virtuosic) solos.
The final movement is a moto perpetuo derived from the first few notes of the opening motif, where the piano's wild forward momentum is cut short by the orchestra every time it just starts to get going, creating a tense uncertainty. After a few more outbursts, the piano finally erupts into the main theme, which leaps all over the keyboard incorporating its full range, with syncopated rhythms, and off-beat punctuations. After several transformations of this theme a moment of calm takes us back to the ponderous feel of the first movement, and then the moto perpetuo starts up a long gradual build to a victorious ending.
Commissioned by Jack Richards
28 Mar 2014: NZSO | La Dolce Vita