• Richard Danielpour
  • Piano Concerto No. 3 (“Zodiac Variations”) (2002)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • 3(afl+2pic).2.3(bcl).3(cbn)/4331/timp.3perc/pf(cel).hp/str (min:
  • Piano
  • 24 min

Programme Note


Richard Danielpour composed his Third Piano Concerto between June and August in 2000; the work was commissioned by Herbert R. Axelrod for Gary Graffman, who is the soloist in the present performances, the first given anywhere.

In addition to the solo piano, the score, dedicated to Gary Graffman, calls for 3 flute, alto flute, and 2 piccolos; 2 oboes; English horn; 3 clarinets and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns; 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, crash cymbal, suspended cymbal, ruten, castanets, triangle, 2 sandpaper blocks, guiro, chimes, 2 vibraphones, 2 vibraslaps, xylophone, glockenspiel, water gong, celesta, piano, harp, and strings.

In sharp contrast with the contemporaneous American Requiem and the Margaret Garner opera, the new Piano Concerto No. 3, which carries the subtitle Zodiac Variations, might be regarded as a celebratory piece, charged with vitality and very much “about” the piano and the particular pianist for whom the work was composed. Mr. Danielpour advises that in 1997, shortly after he began teaching at the Curtis Institute of Music, Gary Graffman, the distinguished pianist who is that Philadelphia school’s director (and who, like several keyboard colleagues, has suffered damage to his right arm that severely reduced the repertory available to him), asked him for a left-hand concerto, “…it made sense to me. In my younger years I was an active pianist, and I injured my right hand; eventually I recovered only 75% of its effective use at the keyboard. Gary reminded me of his request early in 2000. I admire him and like him so much and wanted to do this, once we could get a commission for such a work, get a commitment from a major orchestra for the premiere, and get the time needed to do the actual composing. Of course, I would make the time, because this is something I really wanted to do.”

The work Dr. Axelrod’s generosity has brought into being is Mr. Danielpour’s Third Piano Concerto; like his other concertos, it bears a distinctive title of its own in addition to its “generic” one, and in this case that title identities its form: an extended set of variations. Why Zodiac? The composer tells us he has, “always been interested in Renaissance zodiac wheels – those with the lion in the center, the wheel as the universe, as something revolving. I thought it would be interesting to create my own zodiac wheel, images in reference to astronomy, and even astrology, very much inspired by the Renaissance zodiac wheel; something that might even play as a loop: the last variation could connect into the beginning.”

While Rachmaninoff’s final concerted work, the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, is also cast in the form of a theme and variations, Rachmaninoff groups his variations (24 of them) into three larger sections that correspond more or less to the three movements of a conventional concerto. Mr. Danielpour was not concerned about conventional concerto structure in creating his Zodiac Variations - and, for that matter, he has not been concerned, either, about the proper calendar sequence of the 12 zodiacal signs. He describes the work as comprising 13 movements, 12 of them being variations on an initial Chaconne. (That is the form taken for the statement of the theme, marked Maestoso.) The first five variations – (1) Aquarius (marked “Light, playful”), (2) Pisces (“Lyrical, elegant”), (3) Aries (aptly enough, “Aggressive, martial”), (4) Taurus (“Bold, defiant”), (5) Gemini (“playfully”) – are followed by (6) Leo, which carries the simple marking Adagio instead of one designating a more specific character or mood, and which may be regarded as the work’s “slow movement” (or one of them). The orchestra comprises only the strings and harp in this section, which serves both to conclude the first half of what Mr. Danielpour refers to as the “palindromic structure” of his variations.

The second half of that structure proceeds with (7) Cancer (“Lively,” Presto), (8) Libra (Allegretto giocoso), (9) Scorpio. (Li’istesso tempo, leggerio un poco scherzando), (10) Virgo (“Dark, mysterious” con rubato), (11) Sagittarius (“Slightly agitated,” con rubato, and (12) Capricorn. Variation 10 (Virgo) is another “slow movement,” balancing the relative lightness of No. 6 with a conspicuously darker character; in two sections of this variation the soloist is directed to stand up, reach into the piano, and play glissandi directly upon its strings. Variation 12 (Capricorn) is a full-fledged finale, wit an introductory section based on a Protestant chorale leading eventually to a sort of cancan, the most overtly virtuosic section of the work.

The composer advises that he conceived the theme of his variations in June 2000 in a Paris restaurant, outlined his Chaconne by the time he had his coffee, completed his first draft of the entire work about ten days at the Fondation des Treilles in the south of France, and completed the scoring that summer during stays at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. He advises too that Dr. Axelrod that at some point in the work there be a citation of Paganini’s 24th Caprice. To Mr. Danielpour this seemed an eminently appropriate gesture, in respect to both Dr. Axelrod himself, in light of his devotion to the violin and violinists (his books on violinists were published by Paganiniana publications), and the soloist for whom he commissioned the work. One of Gary Graffman’s early recordings, which became a “classic” in its own right, was his performance with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic of the aforementioned Paganini Rhapsody of Rachmaninoff, one of the most celebrated of the many works in various form based on the 24th Caprice. The requested citation may be heard in Variation 9 (Scorpio).

— Richard Freed