Composition Date: 2016
Orchestration: PfSolo - 1(Picc).2.2(2=BCl).2 - 22.214.171.124 - Perc/Timp - Str
First performed by Jonathan Biss, with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra conducted by Mischa Santora, on Presidential Inauguration Day in the USA - 20 January 2017 – at Ordway Hall, St Paul, Minnesota.
Commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Orchestre de Chambre de Paris with support from Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
This concerto is a response to a request from Jonathan Biss, who has commissioned five works to partner the five Beethoven piano concertos. This piece corresponds to Beethoven’s first concerto, and was composed over the Autumn of 2016.
My first two piano concertos refer to the natural world – the first, Hill Stanzas (premiered by Ronald Brautigam with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta), to the Cairngorm mountains, and the second, Cauldron of the Speckled Seas, to a whirlpool off the West coast of Scotland. In this third concerto, I turned to the urban landscape.
What I didn't know was how deeply I would be affected by the politcal situation both in the UK and in the USA, and how this in turn would affect the work. I began to see 'the city' as mankind's assault on the planet. I had initially intended a celebration of inventiveness and creativity, but began to perceive also a motive of greed in the centres of power and commerce – the development of profit-making technology, of ever more efficient armaments; the widening of the gulf between those who have everything and those who starve. The music in all three movements is darkly sardonic.
The sidedrum is the soloist in the opening bars, building to the first solo piano entry. Octaves and runs set up an ironic, circus-like toccata. After a central more relaxed section, the opening music is heard in retrograde, so that the upward scales from the first part reappear heading downwards, and the sidedrum fades into the distance.
The central movement represents urban decay, and loneliness. It is a memorial for those who die alone in the midst of the city.
The last movement presents an unstable, chaotic structure: the mood is grotesque and hollow, with the different sections overlapping, and no attempt at integration. It follows the pattern of Beethoven’s Rondo, and takes some of its themes, but with a queasy irony. In the midst of a virtuosic cadenza, the piano introduces a lost, lyrical voice, which reappears several times but is extinguished at the end of the piece by savage, slashing chords.
All the material in this work derives in some way from the Beethoven concerto, taking a small group of notes or a rhythmic pattern from each corresponding movement as a starting point. All three movements are symmetrical in some sense – the first two framed by a mirror image of their opening bars, and the last a typical rondo, beginning and ending with its main theme.
The concerto is inspired by Jonathan’s individual, expressive and virtuosic playing, and the clarity of his soundworld. It is also affected by our shared anxiety about the future.