concerto for piano and chamber orchestra
Premiere: 25 April, 2016, Riverside Recital Hall, Center for New Music at University of Iowa School of Music. Shannon Wettstein Sadler, piano solo, David Gompper, conductor
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus travels widely and survives numerous trials through wit and cunning while the most important figure in his life, Penelope, remains at home and survives an equally harrowing situation in an effort to preserve the kingdom. In order to delay the unwanted advances from the crowd of suitors determined to force her into marriage, she develops a ruse in which she agrees to consider their proposals only after completing a death shroud for her father-in-law. Alone in her quarters, she weaves during the day and unweaves the entire tapestry at night, thus maintaining her solitude and holding her household intact for more than three long years. Brilliant and combative in public, she becomes increasingly despondent in private.
SHROUD takes Penelope’s character and circumstance as a point of departure, rather than being wedded to the narrative itself. This provides the framework for a somewhat unconventional concerto formulation that obviates the sort of exchange of ideas that characterizes the core of the genre. While the pianist and ensemble have some direct encounters, the normative condition for the piece is one in which they occupy distinct spaces, where there is little meaningful interaction, and virtually no common ground. Our protagonist is not looking to persuade anyone and finds the very presence of the ensemble to be a torment.
Broadly speaking, the piano part is vested with elaborate figuration depicting an ingenious and rhetorically brilliant persona whereas the ensemble tends to be elemental and feral – a malignant presence. In the first movement the piano engages warily with the ensemble but soon takes on a critical distance, eventually displaying an imperious rage at the very circumstance of this encounter. The second movement examines the costs of this situation, particularly the effects of isolation, and features a gradual loss of the piano’s fluency and resonance. These are perhaps the central attributes that define its character, and thus this loss is a tragic one.
SHROUD is dedicated to the pianist Shannon Wettstein Sadler, to whom I’m indebted for her friendship and for our rich collaboration on several projects over a period of more than twenty years. This project was made possible by the Center for New Music at the University of Iowa and by David Gompper, its director.