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Three Questions Before the First Night, by Carson Cooman

Charles Wuorinen -- Fourth Piano Concerto

One of America's leading composers, Charles Wuorinen (born 1938) has produced a vast body of work in all genres. He has won numerous awards, including a MacArthur 'Genius' Grant and a Pulitzer Prize, and is currently a professor at Rutgers University.

Wuorinen describes himself as a 'maximalist' -- in the sense that any musical tool is 'fair game' for use in his rich composition palate. Drawing on a personal harmonic language forged from post-serial structures, Wuorinen brings a tremendous musicality to his work -- never forgetting that no matter how complicated music can become, it is always meant to be heard and not just studied on the page.

Conductor James Levine, newly appointed music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Boston, Massachusetts, USA), is an active champion of Wuorinen's music. With the BSO, he has commissioned Wuorinen's Fourth Piano Concerto which premières 23-26 March 2005 with Peter Serkin at the piano in Symphony Hall, Boston, MA.

OneCarson Cooman: You've now written four piano concertos with orchestra, tied with string quartets in your catalogue for most works in the same genre. What went through your mind when you sat down to write a fourth concerto with solo piano after receiving the BSO's commission?

Charles Wuorinen: This new concerto was a very special situation. I wrote the first two piano concerti for myself -- the first premièred by the Buffalo Philharmonic and the second was for the New York Philharmonic under Erich Leinsdorf, followed by a performance with the Chicago Symphony. The third was for Garrick Ohlsson, and he toured with it through a variety of orchestras.

But this new one is for the combination of James Levine and Peter Serkin. I had spoken to Peter Serkin over the years about a concerto, which he wanted very much. Then he happened to be performing the Schoenberg concerto with Levine a few years ago and mentioned his interest in having a new concerto from me. Thus, Levine decided to commission this work for his first full season as the music director of the Boston Symphony.

Although I certainly can't tell you what I was thinking about when I actually wrote the music, there was the sense of doing something for these two very great musicians surrounding the composition of the piece.

TwoCC: You've been an active pianist throughout your musical career. Does your own piano background have an effect on your approach to writing for the piano -- whether in a concerto context, a piano part in a chamber piece, or a solo piano work?

CW: Of course -- my experience as a pianist is very significant to my piano writing. Just as my long close working experiences with very fine players of other instruments clearly conditions the way in which I write for them.

One thing, perhaps about the piano writing, is that my familiarity with what the instrument can do makes the music more difficult to play than it would be otherwise. But after the psychological barriers occasioned by unfamiliarity are conquered, it's not that physically challenging.

But as just a single example regarding piano writing, I am very conscious of the capacity of the piano as a resonating instrument. A lot of what I do when I write for it is designed to allow large fields of notes to ring for a relatively long time. Thus, complex harmonies are built in that way -- through single attacks. A lot of composers who aren't intimately familiar with the piano feel that the instrument is intrinsically contrapuntal. That's fine, of course, as the piano can do that well. But it offers more than just that. In an environment like a concerto, where one is dealing also with a large number of other instrumental voices in addition to the piano, it's very helpful to have a clarifying sonic technique for the piano.

ThreeCC: The new fourth piano concerto is one of the first commissions that the Boston Symphony has made under the direction of James Levine, its new music director. Levine has been a champion and supporter of your work and it looks as though that will continue even more strongly into the future. Can you tell me a bit about how your musical paths first crossed, and the work that you two have done together?

CW: I'm not sure exactly when it began. We've known each other for many years, but this very active performance pattern is a recent thing from the last five years or so. I remember at the time of the world première of Milton Babbitt's second piano concerto (with the Met Orchestra in 1999), we ran into each other and talked. Levine said that he was planning a long-range cycle of my works -- both in terms of performances of existing pieces and new commissions.

The wonderful thing about Levine, aside from his marvelous gifts as an interpreter, is that he plans things very far in advance. He's very well organized that way. So this whole business has been in the works in his mind for a good many years already, and now that he has the post in Boston, he can do a great deal of additional things. I believe even that part of the conditions for his accepting the job in Boston were various requirements to have necessary rehearsals to be able to commission much of this new music -- by a wide variety of living American and European composers.

At present, I have three forthcoming works for him. Right at this moment, I'm working on a large one-movement tone poem for the Met Orchestra for next season. A percussion concertante chamber work for his Carnegie Hall series will follow that, featuring Greg Zuber, the Met Orchestra's principal percussionist. Then, for the 2006-07 season there will be a new three-movement symphony for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Copyright © 1 March 2005 Carson P Cooman, Rochester, NY, USA







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