A piece of music is a haven in time, yet it must also be escaped. Music makes contradictory demands on us: in any compelling musical work, the musical material has a kind of will to survive, a zest for life, a burning need for continuation. But to create a satisfying temporal form, the composer must find a way to end things. This can feel like an act of violence: the musical material wants to stay alive! Who am I to force it back into silence? In a successful piece, though, the violence enacted upon the musical material serves to reveal the deeper nature of its life-force: like any living thing, it was headed for extinction even when it burned brightest, and the form of the piece is the shape that its life needed to take.
The three movements of my concerto manifest three distinct relationships to time. This manifests also in the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra, which is a fraught question in any concerto. Just think of the vast range between, say, Mozart's piano concertos, where the winds hover over the keyboard line like sympathetic attendant deities (a relationship that Ravel borrowed in the slow movement of his G-Major concerto), and the Schoenberg piano concerto, in which both soloist and orchestra seem to be fleeing some gigantic landslide. In more recent years, György Ligeti's piano concerto delights in the piano's percussive essence, the sense that every striking of a key is the destructive — yet also fire-creating — blow of a hammer on an anvil. And Thomas Adès's In Seven Days imagines the piano as the God of the Old Testament, the spirit that blows through the emerging world, which is the orchestra itself.
In my first movement, the percussion seems to claim, right from the onset, that there's nothing left to say. The percussion forms an arid texture, a kind of uninhabited landscape that the piano is forced to walk through, looking for signs of life. The relationship between soloist and orchestra is tense and volatile throughout the movement: the soloist works desperately to control an inner chaos, which keeps surging up and which ultimately cannot be suppressed.
The second movement is a consolation. Here, both piano and orchestra seek to prolong the experience; the musical material is newly warm, even tender. The sudden shift in texture near the movement's end seems to be a gentle alarm bell going off, an alert that the dream has run its course and it's time to wake up.
The third movement is the piano's escape act. The strings play a light, feathery ostinato which the piano recognizes, uneasily, as a kind of doomsday clock, and which it tries to transcend. Near the movement's end, roughly where one might expect a cadenza in a classical concerto, the piano plays a brief passage that has nothing to do with the rest of the concerto: it's a vision of a different world. The orchestra quickly drags the soloist back to reality, and the movement ends with that same uneasy ostinato — but the soloist's vision can't be unseen.
— Matthew Aucoin
Conor Hanick, piano; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor