Betsy’s tunes – Jolas piano concerto premieres at the Proms

Betsy’s tunes – Jolas piano concerto premieres at the Proms
Betsy Jolas
© Jean Radel

A new piano concerto by Betsy Jolas offers a playful take on modern life, as seen through the eyes of the celebrated French composer.

bTunes will be premiered at the BBC Proms by pianist Nicolas Hodges and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on September 5. The title, which alludes to Apple’s iTunes (the ‘b’ standing for Betsy), hints at the structure of the 16-minute concerto. It is based on a series of short solo pieces composed by Jolas over the years and arranged in the manner of a playlist. The premiere will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and available to listen for 30 days.

Although her music has previously featured at a Proms chamber music concert in Cadogan Hall, this is the first time the 96 year-old composer’s work has been performed in the Royal Albert Hall.

Jolas was born in Paris in 1926 and grew up in the US before return to France where she studied with Milhaud and Messiaen among others. In recent years, she has had works commissioned and performed by orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The performance of bTunes is the first of two major Jolas world premieres taking place this autumn - in November, the Orchestre de Paris and Klaus Mäkelä will premiere another new work for orchestra, Latest.

Betsy Jolas on her piano concerto bTunes

As years race by and my age increases, I find that I look back on much longer stretches of my seemingly never-ending life, reaching sometimes as far back as my early childhood. But I realise now that having access to this impressive overall view has considerably helped my understanding of the world I live in today, nearly a century later.

To speak mainly of music; I am now, at 96, practically the last of my generation, since most of my great colleagues have now, alas, left this world. I happen to have known personally many of them well and I am today constantly called upon to ‘testify’ on the now historical musical movements many of them represent. And of course, I always accept this task, for I have followed these trends all along with great interest, guided as usual by my natural curiosity.

Although I never became a disciple of any of them, old age has fortunately not diminished my curiosity and it still helps me evaluate the situation today. I have thus noticed in recent years, that most people’s attention to music has shrunk drastically to barely 10 seconds. This observation has been echoed in much of my music, but only as usual, after being put through what I call my ‘personal filter’. Then I like to come up with a suggestive title to help the listener find their way.

I have followed this direction today in deciding on a title for my new piano concerto and I am aware that the projected premiere at the famous London Proms (which I will discover as well) has had quite an influence on this quest.

The title bTunes which I finally chose for this concerto is obviously borrowed, including the spelling, from the now quasi historical ‘iTunes’. In its new version, with ‘b’ now standing for Betsy, this title designates a collection of short pieces written over the years for various pianists including of course Nicolas Hodges.  The resulting work might be considered as a kind of modern ‘suite’, evoking the way most people listen to music today: through… playlists.

– Betsy Jolas

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