Full programme

  • Gershwin, An American in Paris  (17mins)
  • Clyne, ATLAS (CBSO Commission: UK Premiere)  (29mins)
  • Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte  (6mins)
  • Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Wood)  (34mins)

Performers

Introduction

I'm thrilled that the CBSO will be giving the UK premiere of my first piano concerto, ATLAS, as part of their 24-25 season launch evening.

I'm also delighted that it's on the same program as Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (this is my most memorable experience playing cello in a youth orchestra back in the 90s), Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte (Ravel is an important influence on my orchestration - and what a sublime opening melody), and who can resist the tunes and riffs in Gershwin's An American in Paris - a sound-world that I have grown to love as a Brit living in America for 22 years, half of my life.

I had the great joy of writing ATLAS for the renowned American pianist Jeremy Denk, who also happens to be somewhat of a neighbour - both living in the Hudson Valley in New York (myself full-time and Jeremy part-time). Jeremy's breadth of repertoire, his album c. 1300–c. 2000 being a great example of this, presented an opportunity to write a piece that draws inspiration from a wide variety of musical styles.

Set in four movements, ATLAS is also inspired by (and titled after) the monumental, four-volume publication ATLAS, which maps the ideas, processes, and inspirations of the German artist Gerhard Richter. Conceived and closely edited by Richter himself, this comprehensive compendium cuts straight to the heart of the artist’s thinking, collecting more than 5,000 photographs, drawings and sketches that he has compiled or created since the moment of his creative breakthrough in 1962. My music responds to the imagery contained in these four volumes to create a musical montage and a lucid narrative.


An American in Paris

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

The city of Paris has long been a subject of fantasy and romance across all art-forms – perhaps most extravagantly in Hollywood films, where the figure of the ‘American’ gazing in enchantment at the Eiffel Tower, the Seine or simply a cobbled street often generates movie magic (see French Kiss, Before Sunset, and any number of Audrey Hepburn films for perfect examples).

In Midnight in Paris, the main character finds himself transported back from 2011 to the 1920s and hangs out with Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. This is the era in which George Gershwin – another American in Paris – found himself walking the streets, and inspired to compose a gloriously evocative orchestral piece. As well as depicting the city itself, Gershwin’s own starry-eyed enthusiasm is written into the chipper rhythms of the opening section as listeners are led through Paris accompanied by the sound of car-horns (he brought back to the US some authentic Parisian taxi horns to use in the early performances). The more jazz-imbued sections are suggestive of the American’s homesickness, with a slinky melody and a passage resembling the Charleston. The ‘strolling’ melody returns, as the American begins to sink into Parisian life.

Gershwin had begun the piece during his first trip to Paris in 1926, and completed it following his second visit in 1928. In between, he met the French composer Maurice Ravel, who had visited New York and was in turn intoxicated by that city (and wrote a jazz-inspired Piano Concerto not long after). A Hollywood film was later inspired by Gershwin’s work: Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris in 1951 created a whole narrative out of the score, and choreographed numerous sequences to this and other pieces by Gershwin. In 1963’s Charade, set in Paris (with Americans), Audrey Hepburn even refers to Gene Kelly dancing along the Seine in An American in Paris. Gershwin’s colourful, continent-hopping work is a gift that keeps on giving.

ATLAS Piano Concerto

I. Fierce
II. Freely, intimate
III. Driving
IV. Transparent

Anna Clyne (b. 1980)

Anna Clyne has been described as a composer of ‘uncommon gifts and unusual methods’. Her ‘gifts’ will be evident as soon as the baton goes down on her first piano concerto; and her ‘methods’ can be seen across the extraordinary range of influences she has embraced in her work. Her orchestral pieces, for example, have been inspired by the sound of an analogue videotape rewinding, the calligraphy of a Buddhist monk, and the colour orange. Other works have drawn on the visual arts, such as 2016’s Abstractions, and the Piano Concerto, subtitled ‘ATLAS’. This is a response to a huge collection of photography, sketches and cuttings compiled by the German artists Gerhard Richter, often assembled in beguiling montage-form. As with her orchestral pieces generally, Clyne deploys a colourful orchestral palette, with particular focus on a wide range of percussion. Expect to be transported into a startling, musical – and visual – world.

Pavane for a Dead Princess

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Ravel composed Pavane pour une infante défunte while studying with Fauré at the Conservatoire de Paris. He was possibly influenced by Fauré’s own Pavane, composed some twelve years earlier: both draw on the stately melancholy of the ‘Pavane’ dance form, and both have irresistible melodies. Ravel’s work was originally a piano piece, and vaguely inspired by his love of all things Spanish, per the use of ‘infante’, the Spanish term for ‘Princess’ (though Ravel also responded to questions about his title that he merely like the sound of the words). He orchestrated it in 1912 for small ensemble – winds, horns, strings and harp, with an especially prominent role for solo horn and flute (the flute in particular nodding to the Fauré Pavane). The horn sings the opening melody over plucked strings; a countermelody follows. This sequence recurs twice more, with Ravel indulging in ever-more sumptuous orchestration. In between each repetition are elegiac, richly-scored interludes – for muted strings, for pairs of woodwind, and each time concluding with a sensuous, almost bluesy cadence. As always with his arrangements, Ravel has a wonderful time playing with combinations of instruments: in the second interlude, the harp weaves in and out of duetting woodwind in a particularly magical way. The Pavane has been used in numerous film and television soundtracks; its blend of romance and melancholy is perfect for a scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises in which Bruce Wayne and Selena (Catwoman) dance at a masked ball.

Pictures at an Exhibition

I. Promenade
II. Gnomus
III. Il Vecchio Castello
IV. Les Tuileries (dispute d’enfants après jeux)
V. Bydlo
VI. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks
VII. Samuel Goldberg and Schmuÿle
VIII. The Market at Limoges
IX. Catacombs
a. Sepulcrum romanum
b. Cum mortuis in lingua mortua
X. The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)
XI. The Great Gates of Kiev

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
(orch. Wood)

Mussorgsky’s reputation as a composer rests on only a few works, but they are all hugely distinctive, and were often written in response to poetic or artistic inspiration. In his short life (he died of alcohol-related illness aged only 42), and while working mainly as a civil servant, he composed the opera Boris Godunov, the famous Night on a Bald Mountain (memorably used in Disney’s Fantasia), a series of song-cycles, and perhaps his most famous work, Pictures at an Exhibition. He wrote it as a piano suite in 1874 in response to an exhibition of paintings in St Petersburg by his friend Viktor Hartmann who had died suddenly. Some of the paintings have been identified – such as ‘Ballet of the Unhatched chicks,’ which came from a costume for choreography; and ‘The Hut on Fowl’s Legs’, a clock designed with legs like a chicken.

Like Gershwin in American in Paris, Mussorgsky places himself in the work during the ‘Promenade’ sections – in the original piano suite there are four versions of this, varying in mood. He wrote that he had conjured up a musical picture of himself ’roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.’ The piece seems to have been considered a novelty – and not to be taken seriously – by both composer and his circle of friends, and it was not published in his lifetime. It subsequently appeared in print but is curiously unpianistic in places, particularly in the longer, sustained passages (such as ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Great Gate of Kiev’). It works considerably better for ensemble, and many composers and musicians over the decades have gone to town with its vivid, sometimes bizarre imagery. There are indeed an extraordinary number of arrangements, from Ravel’s famous orchestration to a version by Yaron Gottfried for jazz trio, to Mekong Delta’s take for thrash metal band.

Sir Henry Wood, the Proms conductor who introduced British audiences to a huge amount of contemporary music, was the second arranger to tackle it in 1915. (Somewhat modestly, after Ravel produced his in 1922, Wood banned performances of his own at the Proms in the 1930s). His own version takes more liberties with Mussorgsky’s score than did Ravel, chiefly in omitting all but the first ‘Promenade’ (although it does emerge from the sombre texture at the end of ‘Catacombs’). His orchestrations range from the delicate (a sprightly solo spot for the first violin in ‘Tuileries’ and playful woodwind for the ‘Unhatched chicks’) to atmospheric (sternly swaying trombones and off-stage camelbells in ‘Bydlo’) to increasingly no-holds-barred by its final movement – throwing bells, pipe organ and the kitchen sink at the ‘Great Gate of Kiev.’

© Lucy Walker


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