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A Tale of Two Concertos

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My friend Stephen Albert once said that he couldn't imagine writing a string quartet after those of Bartok. I countered with what still seems to me an appropriate response: How can you write a symphony after Beethoven, songs after Schubert, or really, operas after Mozart or, oops -- maybe even Wagner? So with this in mind, I am taking a short break from writing about individual composers to present comments in regards to various genres including the string quartet, opera, songs and concertos, for cello, violin and piano. I do this because particular pieces have been added to the repertoires of these genres which are exquisite and they should be better known, appreciated and performed.

I begin with the piano concerto because two have come to my attention that are quite marvelous. One is the Piano Concerto by Yehudi Wyner which I heard awhile back but is now available in a newly released recording (Bridge 9282) . The other is a newly premiered work penned by Bernard Rands. The fine soloists are Robert Levin and Jonathan Bliss respectively and the concertos were commissioned by the Boston Symphony which admirably continues the legacy of Koussevitsky's commitment to American music.

Wyner and Rands have much in common. They are both in their 80s and are notes and rhythm composers, which is to say the pitches and durations really count. Thus they are traditionalists and believe in an ongoing dialogue with that tradition. They are Pulitzer Prize winners, Wyner for this work and Rands for the orchestra song cycle Canti del Sole, and were eminent teachers.

Wyner grew up the son of the gifted Yiddish art song composer, Lazar Wyner; studied with Hindemith at Yale; and spent important years at the Academy in Rome. Wyner is also a fluent and refined pianist. His compositional output runs the gamut including an abundance of chamber music and a healthy representation of song and/or song cycles (partly influenced by his gifted wife, former singer turned conductor, Susan Davenny Wyner), as well as works reflective of and on the Jewish tradition. His music is always artful and probing.

His piano concerto is an expression of the normative aspects of the tradition while also demonstrating his interest in folding in the vernacular which is done frequently in his music. (e.g. Passage 1 -- New World, NWCR701 ). This music proceeds in a ruminative and associative manner that is quirky and quixotic. There is an ambivalence or hesitation, a holding back or a withholding of clarity, an insouciance and double-edged humor. These traits give the music charm and delight, zest and sparkle and display a sonic twinkle in the eye.

Rands was born in Sheffield England, studied in Wales and then received perhaps his greatest influence from studies with Luciano Berio. Escaping the British madness of proclaiming the kingship of composers at an early age -- and either you are or you aren't -- he came to the States early in his career from York University in the north of England to the much sunnier climes at UC/San Diego.

His early music was decidedly effected by his Italian experience, with its interest in the short gesture, the theatrical, a playful usage and deconstruction of texts, spatial notation and the use of new symbols (e.g. Mésalliance and Ballad I). But like his mentor and other avant-gardists Rands soon realized that he wanted more control. His music became simpler and more direct, as he jettisoned the paraphernalia of the avant-garde to write clear and straight-forward music that is driven by color and a latent lyricism. There isn't a hint of the vernacular in his music -- rather this is music that proclaims its seriousness and high art value. It is more proscribed and hermetic. Thus, Wyner is to Mozart as Rands is to Debussy.

Both concerti are about 20' in duration. Wyner's is in one long movement with varying speeds and moods, while Rands's is in the usual three-movement structure of fast-slow-fast. In both the piano and orchestra engage in quick conversation, bravura passages, and the orchestra occasionally performs typical accompanimental duties. Cadenzas are short in both. Wyner tends to employ more traditional pianistic attributes like rapid-fire octaves and longish digital displays of very fast passage work, not surprising given his own virtuoso technique and feel for the keyboard. It isn't for nothing that the title of his work is Chiavi in Mano, an in-joke for Italians that means "keys in hand." Rands' piano writing is episodic with bursts of energy and recovery; about an alteration of quick scurrying single lines interrupted or articulated by chordal interruptions.

Both composers write in an extended tonal realm. In Wyner's world this allows for an allusion to honky-tonk in the middle which is then realized in a brazen way at the conclusion; it is a bit cheesy but damn if it doesn't work! The tonal materials are occasionally clouded by vast tertial extensions and quasi-octotonic fragments rich in minor seconds and tritones, but there is always a return to the bright tertial landscape- in fact, this is one of Wyner's sunniest works, perhaps a result of its Italian provenance. The 6ths and 3rds are presented with rhythmic cells that make them indelible. This is music that imprints itself on the memory, a trait that Rochberg suggested maybe isn't such a bad thing after all.

Rands's concerto starts with a lovely lyrical ascent of a minor 6th followed by a descent of a tritone creating a whole tone scale fragment (think Debussy at his most dreamy and hazy). This is followed soon by a perfect fourth which in conjunction with the previous material creates a wide range of intervallic possibilities, all of which Rands exploits handsomely. Repetition allows this initial idea to stick in the mind and it even comes back in the final movement to provide a sense of return and closure. The middle movement is Rand's at his most restrained, elegant and ethereal. This slow adagio features unadorned two-part counterpoint that starts in the lowest register in the bass and cello and traces a slow ascent into the highest realms in the violins, and after a very slight variant in the piano, the music continues in this tranquil manner throughout. The last movement is like a riff on Berio's Points on the Curve to Find in its single-minded pursuit of the heterophonic possibilities of trills and a single scurrying line that connects them.

Wyner's music is always searching and probing, moving towards a climax or a point of revelation, and then pulling back, not quite succeeding, then moving on in its quest. It is discursive, finding and giving pleasure in its search. It often employs repeated rhythmic units, almost Hindemithian ones, and transparent doublings that are sharp and precise. When he wants, Wyner can also create the most luminous of mist, as materials within veiled clouds evanesce and proceed refreshed. Having said this, the finely etched pitch and rhythmic materials hold primary interest and their coloring, while always just right, is of secondary importance.

Rands' orchestration is more detailed and perfumed. The music is chock full of bell-like sonorities that help articulate the working out of phrases as well as larger scale structure. Orchestration is here more than half of the game. In some past works this has sometimes resulted in a less than clear articulation of the harmonic rate, but in this piece the harmonic flow is unerringly direct and transparent.

We live in a world that rewards the new, the youthful and frequently the trendy, inarticulate, vapid and superficial. How nice it is to recognize in these works the obvious truism that if a real artist remains true to himself and follows the quest of deepening his artistic expression, his voice gets better, deeper and richer with age. As Wilfrid Sheed said about the older artist: "If he whores after the new thing, he will only get it wrong and wind up praising the latest charlatans, the floozies of the New. His business is keeping his own tradition alive and extending it into its own future." And it is just so in these two concertos by Wyner and Rands, as we find these seasoned masters writing at full and magnificent strength.