Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ideas for concerti

My friend David Barron, who is also the baritone who sang the Ives Vocal Marathon with me, lives in Brooklyn. I have made two trips recently to his spacious apartment where he lives with his wife Susan Barron, the visual artist. We are rehearsing the Ives songs that David sang on the IVM, in preparation for recording sessions, scheduled to begin on Friday 10 June. We also take advantage of the time to eat excellent Chinese or Thai food, catch up on the news, and occasionally take in a special event.

Yesterday was one of these. One of David and Susan’s young friends plays clarinet in a very good concert band, made up of Brooklyn teenagers. They played a concert in Green-Wood Cemetery, a very special Memorial Day event, featuring the music of Green-Wood’s “permanent residents.” On this occasion there were pieces by Fred Ebb, Leonard Bernstein and Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

But these works are not what I wish to mention in today’s blog. Rather, I’d like to mention a famous concerto by a famous Brooklynite, the Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. The performance was perfectly good, better than that from time to time, and David and I were both struck (for the umpteenth time) by what a masterpiece R in B is. But two things made the occasion really memorable.

First of all, the concert took place behind the great gate to the cemetery, where the famous Brooklyn parrots have what is surely their finest nesting place. For a wonderful photo essay on the Green-Wood Cemetery parrots, see:


These parrots, like most birds, like music, and enjoy singing along. But yesterday they were not interested in the band music, or even the piano solo (a performance of the Gottschalk “Pasquinade”). They were interested in R in B, particularly the piano solo sections where the right hand is high and tinkley. After a somewhat tentative start, the parrots chimed in most effectively every time a high, tinkley piano solo passage occurred. Sometimes they sang with delicatesse, sometimes with great gusto, but always as if they belonged in the music (which they most assuredly did) and as if they owned the place (which they do, for all intents and purposes).

All of this reminded me rather forcibly of a compositional problem that has been occupying my mind (or part of it, off and on) for about twenty years. That is, how to write a concerto, or series of concerti, that speaks to the concerns of today and uses today’s musical vocabulary, but is not virtuosic. Needed: concerti of moderate difficulty, for an orchestra of moderate size, not overpowering but with some interesting interplay between the soloist and the ensemble. I had long been thinking of how to make such a piece, using the Mozart concerti as a model, and even discussed the problem with composer-conductor John Kennedy (who assures me that his horn concert is just such a piece—I’ve got to check it out.)

But I realized yesterday afternoon that the perfect model for such a composition already exists, and it really works. Rhapsody in Blue! Through-composed, of moderate length, the soloist and the orchestra don’t get in each other’s way, the proportions are exquisite, etc. So I’m all set. As soon as I finish my other compositional projects (!!) I can turn my attention to a series of Rhapsodies for piano and chamber orchestra. More on this project as it develops. The basic idea is to analyze the R and B and use its structure as a model for new works—with parrots, of course. I have to make room for the parrots, where the piano part is high and tinkley.

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