Inside the making of composer Alan Fletcher’s new piano concerto for Inon Barnatan, premiering Sunday in Aspen
If You Go …
What: The world premiere of a piano concerto by Alan Fletcher
Who: Performed by Inon Barnatan and the Aspen Festival Orchestra
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Sunday, July 30, 4 p.m.
How much: $90
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Concert Hall box offices; http://www.aspenmusicfestival.com
More info: Sunday’s much-anticipated program will also feature superstar soprano Renée Fleming performing selected songs by Bjork and Michael Tilson Thomas’ selections from poems of Emily Dickinson; Robert Spano will conduct the orchestra on Christopher Theofanidis’ “Dreamtime Ancestors” and Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite.”
Pianist Inon Barnatan will take the stage of the Benedict Music Tent on Sunday with the Aspen Festival Orchestra to perform the world premiere of Alan Fletcher’s new piano concerto.
Fletcher, who also serves as president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, will be in the audience with the rest of us watching the Israeli virtuoso bring his composition to life. Fletcher has spent nearly a year with his new concerto — battling artistic doubts, taking some risks and, maybe, adding to the canon of contemporary music.
In the hopes of demystifying the composer’s process Fletcher offered periodic updates from late winter through this week, discussing finishing the piece, handing it over to Barnatan and preparing for the premiere.
On the concerto’s sometimes rocky journey from abstract concept to the page and to the stage, Fletcher got help and inspiration from some unexpected places (from Louis Armstrong, for example, and from an artist’s residency at former nudists colony). At one point, he nearly gave up on writing it. At another, he decided to punctuate the concerto with the musical equivalent of a hissy fit — calling on the pianist to angrily slam his arms on the keys.
This is the story of how it took shape.
TIME OF WAR
Last fall, Fletcher was ready to give up on the piano concerto — or at least postpone its premiere. He’s routinely composed at least one big new piece a year, spending September and October writing on the coast of Maine. It’s a period when his administrative duties in Aspen are light, and he can basically check out and write music.
But as the winter neared in Aspen, he’d created something of a creative logjam. He entirely scrapped a complete version of another piece he’d written in Maine — a violin concerto for Daniel Hope, due to premiere in September in San Francisco — which left him with two concertos to write and little free time left. Concerned he might not finish Barnatan’s piano piece in time for its summer 2017 performances, he called the artistic administrator at the Los Angeles Philharmonic — which co-commissioned it with Aspen and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — and asked, as Fletcher recalled, “How bad would it be if I didn’t have the piece done for this cycle and you had to postpone it?”
The response was blunt.
“He said, ‘No, you’re joking and it’s not a funny joke and it’s not going to happen.’”
Barnatan, at 38, is among the most sought-after piano soloists alive — The New York Times called the Israeli “one of the most admired pianists of his generation.” He’s booked several years in advance, so postponing was not an option.
Barnatan didn’t sweat it.
“I was never concerned,” he said this week shortly after arriving in Aspen for rehearsals. “I knew that Alan knew what he was doing.”
Fletcher then attempted to buckle down and finish the concerto at his Missouri Heights home — working in the Aspen office only every other day.
“That wasn’t good enough,” Fletcher said, “because you have to get in a rhythm where every minute of the day you’re thinking of the piece. You go to bed thinking of it and wake up thinking of it and, often, wake up with, ‘Ah, that’s what I’ll do.’”
In other words, Fletcher couldn’t cultivate the kind of light bulb moments he needs to write a piece of music while intermittently putting on his CEO hat.
And then, one Sunday morning, it came to him.
“I woke up with, essentially, the whole piece,” he recalled.
It’s difficult to imagine that one might be struck suddenly with a thing as complex as a concerto — three movements of music, with parts for a 100-odd member orchestra and the piano soloist. Asked what that sounded like or looked like in his head, Fletcher paraphrased Ravel, who while writing his piano concerto said something like, “I’ve written the whole thing, now I just have to find the melodies.”
“I thought, ‘I have an idea of the whole piece — the shape of it, the structure of it, the emotion of it — now I just have to figure out what everyone is playing,’” Fletcher explained with a smirk.
With an idea throbbing in his head, Fletcher needed, as he put it, “Some serious composer time.” He reached out to The Hermitage Artist Retreat on the Gulf coast of Florida, outside Sarasota. Another invited composer had recently canceled, so he headed south for two weeks early in the winter.
Fletcher stayed in a historic house on the beach. Peppered with small cabins, the compound had been a nudist colony in the 1920s. In Fletcher’s two weeks there, his cohort included photographers and performance artists along with fellow composers.
It’s the kind of creative oasis where artists come to do nothing but make art. Fletcher needed a breakthrough on his troublesome concerto.
Composing for the supremely talented Barnatan, there were no limits on where Fletcher might take it. Local audiences may recall Barantan’s memorable contribution to an Aspen Festival Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s triple piano concerto in 2013 (Times critic Harvey Steiman called it “the sort of music-making that makes an audience hold its breath for fear of missing any nuances”).
“Inon can basically do everything,” Fletcher said. “It’s not as if he has strengths and weaknesses.”
Composers, though always aiming for immortality, do write with the particulars of the performances in mind. So, Fletcher wrote specifically for Barnatan’s fingers and for the outdoor setting of the Benedict Music Tent and the Hollywood Bowl, where Barnatan will give its first two performances. With Barnatan’s capabilities and those grand settings in mind, Fletcher decided to aim high.
“I thought, ‘This has to be a very big piece,’” he said.
The concerto’s first movement — titled “Song in a Time of War” — is bombastic, fierce and furious (Fletcher demurred when asked what events inspired such ire as the Trump era dawned in the tail end of 2016). Anyway, he wanted it to snarl.
“The first movement is very angry,” Fletcher said.
One section calls for Barnatan to slam his arms on the keys.
“The pianist is just thwacking the keyboard with his whole forearm,” Fletcher said. “It’s going to be loud.”
Added an enthusiastic Barnatan: “It turns the piano into a giant percussion instrument.”
For the second movement, Fletcher looked first to poet Emily Dickinson. His work has frequently been inspired by literature — a 2011 piece was titled “After a Reading of King Lear” and his 2015 multimedia collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison was based on Italo Calvino’s novel “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.” But in this case, the Dickinson letter he’d hoped would inspire him did not work.
“The first day I just sat there looking at the ocean, thinking about the poem and not getting anything,” he explained. “I got nothing. And the second day I was panicking because I had nothing and I had to write two big orchestra movements. Had to.”
Later, while musing on the ocean in the moonlight, a wistful stanza from a William Wordsworth ode came to Fletcher’s mind. Seated at a picnic table in Wheeler Park in March, Fletcher recited it from memory: “The rainbow comes and goes,/And lovely is the rose;/ The moon doth with delight/Look round her when the heavens are bare;/Waters on a starry night … But yet I know, where’er I go,/That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.”
It fit. And it got his pen moving.
“It’s beautiful and pensive, but it ends with a beautiful punch,” Fletcher explained.
From there, the process moved quickly. Working on the piano in his retreat house on the Gulf, he completed his second movement. But doubt quickly returned: “I thought, ‘This is stupid. This is the worst piece.’ … But I always feel that way. So I thought, ‘I’ll just go to sleep and when I get up I’ll feel better.’ I woke up and thought, ‘No, it’s terrible.’”
Fletcher said this tortured relationship with the work is common for him while he’s writing music. He throws out about half of what he finishes, he estimated.
“Very rarely am I going, ‘This is great!’”
Fletcher tried cutting the middle “B” section of this slow second movement, crafting an asymmetrical piece that abandons the traditional A-B-A structure for an A-A — and finally fell in love with it.
For the third and final movement, Fletcher found himself going in another unexpected direction: He was writing variations on Louis Armstrong’s “Someday You’ll Be Sorry.” He’s not a jazzman and Satchmo is, no doubt, an odd fit with the abrasive opening and the elegiac second movement, Fletcher knew. And yet, he found, it worked for him.
“When I told the other composers this was my plan, they said, ‘That’s a really bad plan,’” he recalled with a laugh. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s what I’m doing.’ They said, ‘You should never tell anyone about this.’”
He studied seven recordings of the Armstrong song that he could find — falling in love with one that featured a clarinetist noodling quietly as Armstrong leads on his trumpet. In Fletcher’s take, the trumpet blows a solo while a clarinet, vibraphone and the piano rumble behind it. This seemed crazy as source material, but it was right for Fletcher in the moment. Armstrong’s ability to straddle tragedy and joy in his singing, Fletcher concluded, was right for this concerto and for this moment in history.
“How ridiculous is it to be putting out variations on a Louis Armstrong work of genius and saying, ‘Well, this is my thing,” he said. “I’m not copying anything, but I’m using a lot of the licks that he had developed for himself and put into his solos.”
Marked by that kind of boldness, Fletcher’s concerto developed into a complex and challenging work. Success is no guarantee, he knows, and Sunday’s premiere could easily flop. That’s all right by Fletcher.
“We’ll see if the audience is thinking, ‘Wait, first he’s slamming the piano to bits? And now he’s playing this classic jazz song?’” he said. “But there are ways in which I think it all fits together.”
‘THIS IS THE THING’
In mid-March, Fletcher returned to Florida to quite literally put his creation in Barnatan’s hands.
The pianist was performing a Mozart recital in Miami produced by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Over dinner at Corsair, Chef Scott Conant’s Miami spot, he gave Barnatan the completed piano part of the concerto.
“I said, ‘This is the thing,’” Fletcher recalled a few days later. “He immediately turned to the last page to see how it ends. It ends very big, so he said, ‘Thank you.’ No soloist wants a quiet ending.”
Barnatan’s initial reaction? “Relief,” he said with a laugh. “You never know what you’re going to get. Commissioning is a difficult process, because until you get the piece you have no idea what it’s going to be like — how complicated, how much you’re going to like it. So I was happy to see some beautiful elements that were apparent from the first glance: it’s quite tonal and interesting; it’s sometimes spiritual and not afraid — in all its epic scale — to be intimate and refined.”
As Barnatan began his work on the piano part, Fletcher began the monthslong process of finalizing all of the orchestra parts and preparing them for publication.
For a composer, this intense stretch of time proofreading, revising, hearing feedback from the soloist — months before a premiere — is the most nerve-wracking part of the process.
In April, as Aspen thawed out of winter, Fletcher added substantial parts for vibraphone, inspired by Armstrong’s collaborations with Lionel Hampton. And he beefed up the role for a bass clarinet and other reeds.
He also wrote a reduced practice version of the whole piece for Barnatan. This is a curious step in the concerto process, little known to those of us who’ve never written one. It reduces the entire orchestra section to a single piano composition. This version would allow Barnatan — who, of course, does not have a full orchestra at his disposal at all times — to practice the entire piece with just one other musician.
“It’s a complex assignment for me,” Fletcher said as he was working on the practice version, “as the music is in no way designed to fit for two pianos. At many times, there are more than a dozen layers of sound spread among the 100 or so players in the orchestra, so condensing it to 10 fingers’ worth means making a lot of editorial decisions.”
Fletcher’s copyist, who engraves the full score and all of the parts, then peppered him with hundreds of questions and comments before finalizing the piece.
“Mistakes always creep in, and nothing is more annoying to everybody than to get to the first rehearsal to say, ‘Oh, sorry, that passage in the cellos is divisi in four parts, not double-stopped in two!’”
In all, the piano concerto ended up with 33 individualized parts for the orchestra. In May, as the Aspen Music Festival season opening and all of Fletcher’s attendant administrative duties loomed, he proofed each of these meticulously by playing through them on the piano, each time “imagining what that player will be thinking and experiencing.”
He won’t have to imagine much longer. The concerto’s world premiere is Sunday.
It holds a plum spot in the festival’s summer calendar, on its most anticipated Aspen Festival Orchestra program of the year. The concert, conducted by Aspen’s music director Robert Spano, will also include superstar soprano (and Aspen alumna) Renée Fleming performing Bjork songs and Michael Tilson Thomas’ selections from poems of Emily Dickinson. It also boasts two high-profile pieces from the festival’s “Enchantment” theme — Christopher Theofanidis’ “Dreamtime Ancestors” and Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite.”
After the world premiere, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform it Sept. 5, with conductor Ken-David Masur at the helm, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will perform it next year (with Spano conducting again).
In these last two weeks, Barnatan has peppered Fletcher with questions — mostly about tempo and character — while Spano and Fletcher talked through the overall interpretation (the pair shared a quick vodka toast Monday after agreeing on “every important point”).
Barnatan arrived in Aspen on Wednesday, in time for a few intense days of rehearsal before Sunday’s world premiere. The piece is his now (Fletcher has dedicated it to Barnatan). And as Fletcher’s long journey with the concerto comes to an end, and the audience’s begins, he’s surprisingly serene.
“When it’s time for the concert, people say, ‘You must be so nervous,’” Fletcher explained. “And I say, ‘I’m not nervous at all because I’m not doing anything.’’
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