Writing a piano concerto with a choir in tow…

old_music_score_background-t2This last week and weekend I’ve been focusing on my commission for the Long Beach Camerata Singers – a piano concerto with choir and chamber orchestra.  I’m into what i’m calling “draft three” or for a better description ” a draft that started to clean up the orchestration and the messy layout that I said I’d get back to later” draft. It really means that I’m editing away, fine-tuning what made it to the page and now needs to be whittled down towards the final product.

For me, this is where I look at the piece and start to add the bits of sparkle – the addition of percussion instruments that add a sparkle; the fix of the dynamic that will allow the clarinet to shine a little more in a certain section.  It’s like working towards the top of a pyramid – the bottom was wide and contained a lot of ideas, and now we get clean house and  work towards that point of the pyramid that represents the top, or the final version for performance.

I had stepped away from the nitty-gritty details of this piece for a few weeks – and I always find that in that space away from a work that I can come back to it and look at it not as the composer but as the editor and really start to clear away the unnecessary stuff.  I find this works with most of my pieces – work hard at it for a couple of weeks or months, and then step completely away for a few days or weeks, and come back with fresh eyes.  It’s hard to see what’s really happening when you are sitting with it, day in and day out.  Walking away from it for a bit lets me keep my sanity AND approach it with a new attitude.

The challenge with writing this piece has been the idea that it’s a piano concerto/no, it’s a choral work/no it’s both.  Writing one or the other makes sense, but putting both together has presented its challenges.  Of course my model is the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, but THAT’S IT.  There’s nothing else out there like it, so I find myself in somewhat uncharted territory. But I kind of like that – I get to forge ahead with my version of how these elements all work together and create my own model.

It’s a balance of finding equal time for the choir to get through the text (and may I say I am working with WONDERFUL text written by Oliver Mayer specifically for this project!) AND to allow the pianist to shine as the soloist AND to give the chamber orchestra a meaningful and exciting role.  I’ve approached this as though I’ve got many different voices telling this story – it’s not just the text sung by the choir, but also the voice of the piano and the voices of the orchestra.  It’s fun to let them play together at times, and then bring out sections like a double woodwind quintet section or a brass section.  And of course the piano gets plenty of solo time as well, but I also use the piano as part of the ensemble at times, interweaving with the orchestra and voices.

I’ll continue the editing process for a while more, each time tweaking and playing with the colors.  At some point, though, I’ll have to hand it over and that’s when the real fun starts.  Letting my friend Rob Istad interpret this work with his ensemble will be the tip of that pyramid where it all comes together.  And hearing Tim Durkovic on piano as he weaves his magic as the soloist – these are the moments I look forward to long before the piece is finished, and the moments that keep me coming back to edit the score.

So here’s looking to the top of that pyramid (and if you live in Long Beach, you know that I’m imagining that big Blue Pyramid at Cal State Long Beach!) and reaching the top!