Born in New York City, June 9, 1938
Adagio (92Y co-commission)
Composed in 2011; 14 minutes
Intrada (New York premiere, 92Y co-commission)
Composed in 2012; 8 minutes
Scherzo (92Y commission)
Composed n 2007; 10 minutes
Charles Wuorinen has had a busy and high-profile few months—busier, indeed, and higher-profile than usual for this ever-active composer. A number of performances and full concerts celebrating his 75th birthday year were presented in 2013, including those at the Guggenheim Museum and the Morgan Library. Also, in February 2014, the culmination of several years of compositional and logistical labor (as well as the navigation of the mercurial opera world) came to fruition with the premiere of Wuorinen and Annie Proulx’s opera Brokeback Mountain at the Teatro Real, Madrid. Those premiere performances have received attention and worldwide critical acclaim.
Wuorinen’s reputation as a composer will never be affixed to any particular genre; his accomplishments in every facet of concert and stage music have been too broad, in terms of both technique and expressive impact. This variety obtains throughout his catalog, from opera and other large-scale works (among them eight symphonies, a Mass, and an evening-length ballet based on Dante’s Divine Comedy) to song and chamber music. In his early work with the Group for Contemporary Music, beginning in the early 1960s, Wuorinen took pride in creating a new genre for every new composition, and his Pulitzer Prize in Music (1970) was for Time’s Encomium, a rare foray into pure electronic music.
An accomplished pianist from early in his musical life, Wuorinen has composed a substantial body of work for his own instrument: solo, four-hand and two piano pieces, and piano with ensembles of various sizes. There are, to date, four concertos, so named, as well as other works for piano and orchestra; four fully fledged piano sonatas; and a number of larger and smaller solo works. Some of the most respected pianists in the world have brought this music into their repertoire, including Alan Feinberg, Ursula Oppens, Garrick Ohlsson and, of course, Peter Serkin.
“One of the great joys of my musical life has been my long association with Peter Serkin. … His remarkable virtuosity is always complemented by a wonderful capacity for expressive phrasing. The great humanity of his playing makes composing for him a rare privilege.” So writes Charles Wuorinen of his close collaborator, who has originated more than half a dozen of the composer’s pieces since the mid-1970s with his TASHI (both a chamber and an orchestral work), composed for the ensemble of the same name in which Serkin was pianist.
Serkin recorded Wuorinen’s Bagatelle for Solo Piano, and in recent years, he has been the recipient of three works for piano with orchestra—the Fourth Piano Concerto, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra during James Levine’s tenure as music director; Time Regained, a fantasy for piano and orchestra, for the MET Orchestra and Levine; and Flying to Kahani, a concerto for piano and “Mozart-sized orchestra,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The Second Piano Quintet was commissioned for Serkin and the Brentano Quartet.
Charles Wuorinen wrote the three contrasting piano solo pieces Scherzo, Adagio and Intrada for Serkin on three separate occasions via commissions from 92nd Street Y, in cooperation with other organizations. Scherzo dates from 2007, Adagio from 2011, and Intrada from 2012. The first two were conceived independently, but with Intrada, Wuorinen aimed to subtly link the other two, thereby creating a larger three-movement form. The composer writes:
In the final assembling of the set, I wanted flexibility of ordering. Thus the purpose of the Intrada is either one of linking or preluding. I specify in my score that the potential six orderings of the three pieces, only two are forbidden: those where the Intrada would be last. Thus, what we hear tonight is only one of four orderings of the three pieces. The question of pre-planned large structure versus organic growth might raise interesting artistic and psychological issues. It’s not my place to invoke them here, but I have to wonder if the results of the two approaches, when coming from the same artist, are really so crucially different? This question is amusing for me to ponder, as one who has long been associated with the rational organization of large scale structures.
“Scherzo” and “Adagio” are both traditional in genre. Scherzo (Italian for “joke”) in a piano solo invokes Chopin, Beethoven and Brahms, and it’s this witty, sparking character that infuses Wuorinen’s piece. The particulars involve unexpected hesitations among flitting textures, contrasting legato and staccato, rapid scales or arpeggios against dark, solid chords.
The Scherzo and Adagio are of similar heft and approximately equal duration; Intrada (“Entrance”) is about two-thirds the length of either of the others. The prevalence of a dotted-note rhythm—short-long, or long-short-long—engages our memory of the Baroque. A syncopated repeated-note figure heard first in the third measure is another gestural touchstone. For the most part contrapuntally dense, Intrada becomes fleeter and more airy in its final minute. Adagio, never merely a tempo marking, has the association of the lovely Mozartian idea, not without its shadows; that was also adopted by Mahler. In the modern era “adagio” has taken on darker intensity and frequently a less linear sense of time. The near-stillness of Wuorinen’s Adagio is heightened by its occasional punctuations of quick gestures or sharp accents, its successions of rich chords, and unexpected interplay of the complex with the daringly transparent.
© 2014 Robert Kirzinger
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