HK Gruber introduces his new Piano Concerto, composed for Emanuel Ax and receiving first performances in New York in January and Berlin in March.
How would you describe your relationship with the piano – as double bass player and composer?
I had a very privileged position when I was an orchestral player, because as a double bassist I often had a close geographical relationship on stage to the orchestral pianist in wonderful works like Stravinsky’s Petrushka or his Symphony in Three Movements. This allowed me to observe how a piano part can mesh with the overall orchestral sound and led me to include orchestral piano in many of my later works to help mark certain structures or support vertical harmonies. From the other perspective, when we accompanied solo concertos my favourites from the repertoire included Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.2 and of course the Stravinsky piano concertos. However, at that time I could never have imagined that one day I would compose a concerto of my own.
Do you view the piano as a singing or percussive instrument?
One of the biggest challenges composing the new piece was how to discover and intensify the singing view of the piano and its lyrical potential. The opposing percussive side that fascinated me in the Stravinsky works was my natural territory and comes to the fore in the second half of my piece. It ends in a very wild and aggressive manner, though this is in fact predicted by the lyrical and melodic material that opens the concerto.
Are there special qualities in Manny Ax’s performances that catch your ear?
I was always impressed by his performances of classics including Mozart, Chopin, Schumann and Brahms but what convinced me to write a concerto for him was his versatility in 20th century repertoire, jumping happily between continents such as in concertos by Schoenberg and Adams. Manny is an ideal example of the full-blooded musician and I had to do justice to this, being careful not to think too much about all the other music that is already under his fingers.
What was the starting point for composing the Piano Concerto?
Before commencing the concerto I had spent many years composing an opera, Tales from the Vienna Woods, based on the classic play by Horváth. A trigger point for the new work was wanting to explore further a moment in the pivotal nightclub scene in the opera. Watching it on stage I was intrigued how the 'shimmy' music played by the cabaret band is itself simple and emotionless, but forms an effective counterpoint to the powerful drama in the foreground. This seeming contradiction was the bud from which my concerto grew.
What is your view of the virtuosity of a concerto soloist?
I've never been interested in virtuosity for its own sake, though the work is written specifically for the hands and musical gifts of Manny Ax. So I needed to be careful that there were enough challenges that the soloist is always seeking - it would be criminal to underuse those special technical abilities.
How do you sum up the interrelation between soloist and orchestra?
In all my concertos I've viewed the soloist as at the tip of a symphonic iceberg. In the new piece the orchestra provides an echo chamber for the material of the pianist, whose 'factual' discourse is resonated through tuned percussion and harp. The work, progressing through a chain of developing variations, is perhaps closest in form to a Sinfonietta with piano solo.
How did you collaborate with Manny Ax on the piece?
The key encouragement through the whole compositional process was the fact that Manny had, long ago, asked if I would like to write a piece for him – this confidence was enough inspiration for me. When the piano solo part had been sent to him he rang me and played down the phone, asking if the music "sounded familiar to me". That was how I heard my unborn problem child for the first time, played by a world champion. Then, when he was soloist in Vienna with the Concertgebouw Orchestra he asked that we spend some hours each day together. He promised he would have almost all my notes in his hands – this was an understatement – he had ALL my notes in his hands. Manny played the solo part and I sang the orchestra and conducted, so we solved any questions relating to suitable tempos, making any necessary compromises. We also got together in New York when he worked on the concerto with his students at the Juilliard School. One conducted, one played the orchestral reduction and Manny played the solo part. This was an exceptional experience for me as a composer, observing how Manny not only took my notes into his hands but step by step absorbed the whole work to make it his own.
Interviewed by David Allenby, 2016
Piano Concerto (2014-16) 23’
Commissioned by New York Philharmonic Society,
Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker,
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
and Tonhalle-Gesellschaft Zürich
5-7 January 2017 (world premiere)
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
Emanuel Ax/New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert
16-18 March 2017 (German premiere)
Emanuel Ax/Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle
Photo: Lucerne Festival
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