Composer Charles Griffin and Conductor Barry Hoffman Discuss the New Concerto for Chamber Orchestra
Barry Hoffman - What makes this a Concerto for Orchestra?
Charles Griffin - When you first approached me about the piece, it was your suggestion that I write a Concerto for Chamber Orchestra. Because the request was not for a solo concerto (traditional association with the term "Concerto" is a Romantic one, evoking soloistic virtuosity and the kind of potential for drama that arises from pitting the soloist against the full orchestra), I was forced to consider other, arguably atypical models. I say arguably, because composers' conception of the Concerto as a form has in fact gradually evolved over the centuries to allow for something much looser in the 21st Century anyway. Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra of 1943, for example, treats the Orchestra
itself as the virtuoso instrument, with each section of instruments featured in a soloistic or virtuosic way. The Concerto as a form originates in the Baroque Era, and at that time, composers more often than not conceived of drama in the Concerto not so much by pitting a soloist against the rest of the orchestra, but rather by contrasting smaller groups of instruments against each other.
In the end, I decided on a blend of Baroque and 20th/21st Century conceptions. There are passages that are virtuosic for the orchestra as an instrument a la Bartok, but I also tried to treat orchestral color as a component of this, striving to create a wide variety of colors over the course of the piece. Every individual wind and brass player, and also the timpanist each gets at least one solo at some point. Individual string players are also given solos, and the various sections of strings have prominent solos or duos. One more note on the solos and the question of virtuosity: I think it's important to point out that
musical virtuosity is expressed by performers not exclusively by the ability to master extraordinarily difficult passages, but rather to bring their full musicality to bear on any passage, whether it's simple or not.
B.H. - - Why did you choose the baroque dance suite form?
C.G. - - I was on a Bach kick last year. I was listening, reading about and playing through lots of Bach. For me, as with many composers, Bach is a life-long mentor and sustainer, one of the ones to go back to for subconscious composition lessons from time to time. I started every day for about 6 months by playing through some Chorales. During this period I became interested in Bach's Suites, and the idea of artistic and intellectual commerce flowing throughout Europe at that time. The Baroque Dance Suite by the time of Bach became a semi-standardized multi-movement work whose non-variable core included the Allemand (a stately German dance in 4/4 time), the Courante (a lively French or
Italian dance in 3/4), the Sarabande (a slow Spanish dance in 3/4), and the Gigue (a lively English dance in 6/8). There are many variable additions to the Suite, including Overtures, Minuets, Gavottes, etc. While in the traditional suite, all the pieces are related by key, they are not related thematically.
Since one of my major composerly preoccupations is with non-Western and folk musics, it struck me that the international nature of the Baroque Suite might make an interesting vehicle for the creation of a suite of pieces that explore elements of world and folk musics.
B.H. - - In your program notes, you talk about composing the piece, "with a contemporary eye toward the meaning of internationalism today." Do you feel you accomplished this? If so, how?
C.G. - - The original plan was to write a five movement suite, beginning with an Overture. As I was writing, I realized that the piece was getting long. After I'd completed four movements of the planned five, I realized I'd already had approximately 26 minutes of music. You stopped me (for now) from writing a fifth movement, which will eventually be located in the spot between the current 2nd and 3rd movments.
Movement I - Trance Overture. After a muscular opening featuring a big role for the timpani and aggressive writing for the brass and strings, it quickly moves to a hypnotic expansion of the opening ideas that employs (in the winds and strings) some of the rhythmic interlocking characteristic of Indonesian and Balinese music for Gamelan.
Movement II - Pavane. The Pavane, along with the Tombeau, is a French relative of the Allemande, which was typically the first proper movement of the Suite. An Allemande is typically in 2/4 or 4/4, unsyncopated, and builds from smaller fragments into a larger work. Here, I took a 13th Century anonymous Hymn tune called Novus Miles Sequitur, most likely of British origin and similarly build the piece from smaller fragments or phrases. This is the most traditional sounding movement in the piece, with a harmonic and color palate that is a blending of English and French classical styles.
Movement III - Not yet written, but this is where the Courante would occur in the Baroque Dance Suite. I will eventually write something here based on Eastern European traditions.
Movement IV - Tierra de luz, Cielo de Tierra. This is where the Sarabande, a dance of Spanish origin, would occur in the Suite. I based this movement on the Siguiriya, one of the Flamenco dance forms. A ritornello based on flamenco guitar styles occurs three times in the movement, contrasted by solo sections and flights toward non-flamenco tonalities, though the Andalusian scale dominates the piece at various transpositions.
Movement V - Weaving Olden Dances. This is where the Gigue would occur in the Suite. This movement is a blend of Irish traditional music and its American stepchild in Appalachia.
Do I feel I accomplished this? Well, it's an experiment. The Overture movement cannot stand on its own, but the others all can, I believe, which was a secondary or possibly tertiary goal for me. I'll let others judge how they hang together in sequence. That being said, and to be quite honest, the piece won't be fully complete for me until that remaining movement is written and placed together with the others. I think the missing movement will help to deepen the sense of stylistic contrast that already exists from movement to movement.
Visit Barry Hoffman and the Westchester Chamber Orchestra at http://www.westchesterchamberorchestra.org/.