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Monday, June 18, 2012

The Wuorinen Gig

From the Vault Dept.: At the beginning of May, 1984, I got a call from the editor of Musical America magazine asking me if I could review the upcoming concert by the Albany Symphony. It would feature the world premiere of a piano concerto by Charles Wuorinen, a formidable American composer. The concert was supposed to have been reviewed by Scott Cantrell, who was writing for the Albany Times-Union at the time, but Scott (a former colleague at WMHT-FM) was suddenly unavailable. Eager for the shot at appearing in a national magazine, I took the gig.

It felt like a tremendous responsibility. It was. A word-picture of music is tricky under the easiest of circumstances; with the first performance of a piece by a composer as thorny as Wuorinen could be, it promised to be impossible. So I attended two of the rehearsals. Wuorinen was kind enough to lend me a score during one of them. By the time of the concert, I felt far more prepared. Then the editor phoned again to say that Scott had become available. “But I’ve been to rehearsals!” I protested. “I studied the score!” Didn’t matter. But it gave me a taste of editorial unprofessionalism that I’ve met many times since.

Here’s the review I wrote for the Albany Knickerbocker News. Not as insightful as I wish it had been, but I’ve since allowed myself much more leeway in the heightened language department in order to better serve the music.


Charles Wuorinen
Photo by Bob Adler
IF PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING composer Charles Wuorinen were able to persuade the classical music audience to share his attitude toward listening, there would be no need for music critics.

Wuorinen stresses familiarity with a work as the most important prerequisite for understanding it, not a written analysis.

“If I could have told you in words what I wished my piece to say,” he advises, “I would have written it, and not composed it.”

His comment preceded the premiere performance of his Third Piano Concerto, played by Garrick Ohlsson and the Albany Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Julius Hegyi in a pair of concerts last Friday and Saturday.

The commission for this work came from the Albany Symphony and a consortium of four other orchestras in the Northeast. (Ohlsson will perform the concerto next season with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic.)

Written with Ohlsson in mind as soloist, the concerto exploits the virtuoso possibilities of the piano while stressing its characteristics as a percussion instrument. The harmonic language of the piece, while not firmly tonal, harkens to as much of a key center as is needed for tension and release in the three movements, particularly in the dramatic finale.

The movements are marked “fast,” “slow” and “fast,” with appropriate metronome settings. They are related both harmonically and in the use of orchestral textures.

The first movement, a toccata, opens with a 32-bar cadenza in which the pianist provides the harmonic and rhythmic material that will be developed throughout the 30-minute work. An array of drums enters; except for the tympani and tuned cowbells this movement (and the last) features the piano in ensemble with percussion instruments of indefinite pitch, exploring rhythmic textures. The rest of the orchestra is treated percussively. Much of the writing for the strings is pizzicato, the brass sounds in clusters. The piano writing is extremely difficult. Often it sounds like Prokofiev on Benzedrine.

After a syncopated introduction by the drums, the second movement shifts into an introspective mode. Here the harp and vibraphone are showcased, creating rich, dense textures when sounded with the soloist. The harmonies of the first movement are explored, a particularly fascinating technique being the use of the strings to sustain the overtones of chords the pianist strikes.

The third movement is a summing up of what has come before, combining the rhythms of the first and the harmonic development of the second. Although melodically abstract, there is a considered, mounting excitement. The florid finish is a logical occurrence.

Wuorinen often speaks of himself as a composer who works in traditional styles. Because of his contemporary musical language, this statement can easily, but wrongly, be dismissed. In this new piano concerto, he has adopted a personalized version of that instrument's 19th-century Romantic personality. The virtuosity is there, the majestic personality; but so, too, is a startling, forward-poking way of presenting those characteristics.

Perhaps the piece will endure as an evocation of things to come. Whatever the case, this is one of the most original additions to the concerto repertory since the work of Bartok.

Ohlsson is generally regarded as a Romantic-era specialist, although his last appearance in Albany was to play a Bartok concerto.

The accomplishment of his performance Saturday evening at the Palace Theatre was breathtaking, and this was obvious even to those who had trouble accepting the work itself.

The orchestra had a difficult score to contend with, but faced the challenges admirably, rising to a virtuoso performance itself. Particular credit should be given to percussion section leader Richard Albagli, who faced what must have been the second-most-difficult challenge of the piece.

American composer John Vincent’s 1954 Symphony in D opened the concert, a one-movement work subtitled. “Festival Piece.” It sounds like the music of Roy Harris and Walter Piston in their lighter moments, and offered a considerable contrast to the Wuorinen work. The orchestra seems to get a kick out of playing works like this one, and they do it well.

The program concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Each of the Tchaikovsky  symphonies poses a challenge to the conductor, ca1ling as they do for trenchant emotional contrasts requiring tight orchestral unity.

Maestro Hegyi conducted the opening andante as if it were an adagio, not so much in speed as in spirit, and this feeling pervaded the rest of the work. It never got as boisterous as it should get; it never got very gloomy. The finale should lift the audience out of their seats. It didn’t.

– Albany Knickerbocker News, May 7, 1984

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