Writing a Concerto
Most young composers who are interested in writing ambitious, large-scale works for orchestra are familiar with the pitfalls of the flashy four to six minute concert opener/curtain-raiser. It’s the piece designed to “show off your talents,” “get your foot in the door,” and (by inference but never promise) lead to a performance of your big symphony or evening-length oratorio “somewhere down the road.” Well, maybe, but by your works shall you be known, and now you’re known as the person who writes five-minute sprees. Sometimes the only thing having your foot in the door gets you is a couple of broken toes.
So, is no one interested in ambitious, large-scale orchestral writing by untried talent? Must you have had a childhood friend who grew up to be a highly successful conductor just to get the time of day from someone in this field? Not necessarily. Next time you check out your local symphony, look carefully at the stage. Il maestro is not the only one up there.
When I was Director of Education for the Portland Symphony Orchestra I had the opportunity to meet many of the soloists who came through town to perform with them. For every pianist or violinist who, upon meeting the composer, suddenly remembered a pressing engagement elsewhere in the room, there would be a cellist, flutist, or percussionist who would graciously ask me if I had written anything for their instrument. These performers, while perhaps not engaged in the ceaseless touring of their more glamorous brethren, possessed a passionate sense of mission regarding the creation of new repertoire for their instruments. Many also have regular solo performance opportunities, a large network of colleagues, and teaching studios full of promising young talent.
Even the most regularly performed self-representing composer will tell you there is no substitute for an enthusiastic third party endorsement. When a gifted instrumentalist tells a music director they regularly work with that they’d like to perform a concerto being written for them by you, then you are much more likely to get a performance.
It was just such a scenario that led me to the composition of my Viola Concerto in 2002. In 2001, the Potomac String Quartet and mezzo-soprano Patricia Green recorded my song cycle, Käthe Kollwitz, for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. When the recording session and subsequent performance were finished, the violist in the quartet, Tsuna Sakamoto, asked me if I had written anything specifically for her instrument. When I told her I had not she offered that, although she was scheduled to solo with the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra in 2002, she would see about getting the date moved to 2003 if that would give me enough time to write a piece for her. She then proposed the collaboration to Eclipse Music Director and Conductor Sylvia Alimena who, because of her own trust in Tsuna’s judgment, gave us the green light.
When I told my friend Don Wheelock that I was beginning work on a viola concerto, he said (no doubt with visions of Bartok and Walton dancing in his head), “A viola concerto, huh? Well, you don’t want to write a bad one!” Once I finished wondering what it must be like to actually study with Don while still young, the meaning of his words started going to work on me. An effective concerto is a thing unto itself, with demands and considerations quite different from other of orchestral undertakings. Whatever else a composer may wish to convey in this genre, the heart of a concerto is the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra. Every episode and gesture must have some bearing upon that relationship. Technical decisions need to be made solely in the service of articulating it in audibly meaningful ways, with the overarching goal of shaping a compelling musical narrative.
Embarking on a large-scale work with a looming deadline will require you to be very conscious of your own working methods. The combination of a little pre-planning and a little experimentation will serve you well. For instance, I am well aware that there are many composers for whom the acquisition of a hands-on knowledge of a given instrument’s capabilities is essential to getting a handle on a new piece. They can cite alternate oboe fingerings chapter and verse and are fluent in the most arcane aspects of bowing technique. The first thing that writing my own concerto taught me is that I am not one of them. I know this because before committing a single note to paper, I went out and rented a viola.
With the idea of painstakingly mapping out heretofore-undiscovered quadruple stopped artificial harmonics, I returned to my studio, tucked the instrument under my chin and had what I believe is referred to in medical circles as a “panic attack.” Staring down the fingerboard of the instrument for which I was expected to be writing virtuoso music was a bit too up close and personal—something like eating a yummy cheeseburger in the presence of a cow. A bit of detachment was called for.
I swallowed my pride and called Tsuna, who thought all this was very funny. She assured me that actually playing the concerto would be her problem. If I didn’t feel I had the time to become a violist myself then I should just write what sounded good to me, be it quadruple stops or open strings. Once a finished solo part was in hand, if changes were called for we could talk about them.
Here are two virtuosic solo passages in which I followed Tsuna’s advice. The first is from Movement III (Saeta). It’s based on both open and stopped perfect 5ths, coupled with some portamento effects. In terms of execution double-stopped fifths on viola can be somewhat awkward. Since Tsuna liked the sound of the passage she suggested that, rather than change any notes, a free approach to tempo was the key, so I scored the accompaniment accordingly. The second passage is from Movement IV (Roundel). It consists of a skipping pattern in 4ths and 5ths that employs adjacent open strings to reinforce a pattern of shifting accents. In this case the notes themselves present no particular technical challenges. Thus the players are in a good position to focus their attention on nailing the passage’s rhythmic challenges at the correct tempo.
Because Tsuna had easier access to a stereo than to an accompanist, we decided that instead of a piano reduction I would do a MIDI mock-up of the concerto for her. While mock-ups have their drawbacks, I’ve found that, in the case of a first performance, these are outweighed by their ability to give a soloist a rough sense of what is going to be coming at him/her from the stage. Of course a MIDI demo can also occasionally give others a chance to second-guess your decisions. While I try to keep an open mind when this happens, I usually explain that a MIDI demo isn’t really for hearing what a piece will sound like—it’s for getting a sense of how it “goes.” In other words, it’s a highly effective tool for quickly putting across the architecture of a work—particularly one of some length—in terms of pacing and tempo.
Ultimately for me, working with a soloist added a collaborative dimension to the normally solitary process of orchestral composition that I found refreshing. I learned a great deal about the orchestra from a new perspective and the orchestra/soloist relationship provided a ready-made focus for ideas about form and musical narrative. And Tsuna’s commitment to making everything in the solo part sing, down to the smallest detail, was a real inspiration.
When you add the conductor to the equation the creative dynamic is a lot like the one you would have working in film. In composing a concerto for a specific performer, the composer is like a writer/director creating a leading role for an actor or actress whom he admires. He is as interested in hearing how she reads the lines as he is in the lines themselves. He wants to know what aspects of the way she thinks about the story will help to tell the story. The role of the conductor is analogous to that of the cinematographer. She must light and shoot the picture in a manner appropriate to the material, but at the same time she has to be the one who tells the director, “We can’t move that wall and we’re losing the light. We need to shoot around it.”
This passage is from Movement I (Arioso). It’s the first orchestral tutti in the piece. In the score the last bar of the climax is marked forte. This is followed by the re-entry of the solo viola, marked forte cantabile. At the first rehearsal Sylvia told the orchestra to add a diminuendo to the forte in the bar before the solo viola’s re-entry. While this sounded fine, I indicated that it was not the effect I was after. Sylvia assured me that in the very resonant acoustic of the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, the effect I was after would completely cover the first bar of Tsuna’s entrance. In this case everyone’s hard work benefited from the conductor not just knowing the score, but also knowing the space that she’d be performing it in.
Once I began sending pages to Tsuna, my feeling of liberation regarding a viable approach to the solo part was gradually replaced by a mounting concern with exactly how one balances said part against an orchestra 40-odd players strong. Writing a 37-minute Rihm-ian meditation on the top third of the A string was an option, but not one that I honestly felt did justice to either my own musical temperament or the opportunity at hand. And while many a well-known concerto accompaniment consists of pianissimo tied whole notes enlivened by the occasional tutti outburst, I knew that I wanted to take full advantage of the caliber of playing represented within the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra.
When I asked Sylvia what aspects of the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra I might consider highlighting in my writing, one of the things she said was “We’re a chamber orchestra, but we can get you a big sound.” Here’s the penultimate climax of the first movement. The orchestra consists of single winds, two horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, harp (not playing in this passage) and strings (55432).
In the end, the thing that best helped me to grasp the acoustical (if not the aesthetic) fundamentals of pitting an instrumental soloist against a large ensemble was to attend, score in hand, rehearsals of my own local symphony. On Sunday afternoons, the Portland Symphony Orchestra runs through the accompaniment of that week’s concerto without the soloist present. Returning the following night for dress rehearsal, I’d hear the work rehearsed again, this time with the soloist. This experience was enlightening in the extreme and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I learned that there are things that look on the page like they will never balance in the concert hall but that come off beautifully and then there are things that will knock your socks off in a recording that are essentially impossible to pull off live. These are just as often issues of ensemble as of balance.
After balance, handling issues of ensemble between soloist and orchestra is probably the most critical factor in determining the effectiveness of a given passage. Duets between the soloist and members of the orchestra, as well as varieties of call and response-type writing, can be very effective in the context of a concerto, but one needs to give serious consideration to the actual placement of the instruments onstage when contemplating such devices. A duet featuring rapid repeated notes between the soloist and a member of the orchestra that is entirely feasible when the two performers are standing next to each other can become an exercise in un-wanted phase shifting when a distance of 15 or 20 feet separates them.
Here is one such potentially dangerous passage from Movement II (Toccata). In it, I used displaced accents to create a feeling of four (in the solo viola) against three (in the violas, ‘celli, basses and timpani). The key here is getting a lock on the 16th-note pulse and then place the accents with total confidence. I love how Tsuna plays this…
I love the combination of strings and timpani, so in the second and third movements of this concerto I wanted to have moments where the solo viola and timpani would perform brief, virtuosic duets. Given the distance normally separating the soloist from the timpanist, these passages required special attention during rehearsals.
Under any circumstances, the ability of a timpanist to hear what a string soloist is doing while executing a complicated part of his or her own would be a real challenge. Adding to the pressure here was the fact that while two of the rehearsals took place in a very dry rehearsal room at the Kennedy Center, the dress rehearsal and performance were to take place in a very resonant church in Bethesda. The solution the performers arrived at was for Sylvia to lock in on Tsuna’s tempo and convey that tempo to timpanist Doug Wallace. Using hard (but not wooden) mallets, Doug then played his part slightly closer to the center of the drumheads than he normally would. This cut down on the amount of ring-through from his drums and kept them from washing out the equally intricate viola part.
Here’s how it sounded:
Everyone reading this is well aware of the time constraints and pressures associated with rehearsing a new orchestral work. The reality is that there are going to be non-musical issues (some unforeseen, others not) that to some extent will dictate the artistic and logistical choices your performers have to make. The key here is to make sure that you yourself do not become one of these issues. In rehearsal, refrain from commenting on wrong notes or inaccurate entrances until you’ve heard them a second time. The first time through a new piece even the best players are going to miss a note here or an entrance there. And trust me—you do not want to have the experience of a conductor patiently explaining this fact to you in front of the orchestra.
Also keep in mind that when the same mistake crops up more than once, it often means that there’s something wrong with, or unclear about, your parts. Clean mistake-free parts will go a very long way towards earning you the trust of your performers. This trust, which in an orchestral setting must be established quickly, will in no small way inspire the people on stage to go to whatever lengths are necessary to breathe expressive life into your music. A performer’s willingness to arrive at the perfect bowing, the sassiest brass mute, the subtlest wind articulation, or the ideal weight and size of suspended cymbal are not just matters of professionalism. They are also a function of their belief that you have something unique to communicate through your music. This can be one of the greatest rewards of working with an orchestra. There is simply no reason to jeopardize it with clerical inaccuracies.
Graphic clarity is also vital because, much to your surprise, some of your musical intentions will be in no way obvious to anyone except you on the first or second attempt. When the conductor turns to you in rehearsal and asks, “What do you mean here?” the relationship between what you explain and what the performers are looking at on the stands in front of them must be clear. In a concerto you are casting the members of the orchestra in a supporting role to one of their friends and colleagues. No one should feel they are being asked to step outside that role without a compelling and well-articulated musical reason.
One effect that I wanted to achieve in the third movement was having Tsuna’s part move at a steady tempo while the orchestra seems to gradually slow down and speed up underneath her. My notational solution was one that looked more complicated on the page than it was to pull off in reality. After a couple of times through people could hear what was happening and really started getting in to it. They no longer felt like they were being asked to make it sound as if the whole orchestra was getting lost and falling apart!
And finally, do yourself a favor. Assuming that your parts are mistake-free, DO NOT freak out over a wrong note or an inaccurate entrance during the course of a performance. One of the biggest things that I have learned in the last ten years of working with orchestras on the preparation of my music is that, in the context of a professional performance, correct tempos are more important than correct pitches in getting a meaningful overall impression of your piece across to an audience.
I think it’s a shame that many (if not all) orchestral reading opportunities and competitions exclude concertos and orchestral song-cycles from eligibility. Working with a solo instrumentalist or vocalist in an orchestral setting is one of the most valuable and enlightening artistic experiences a composer can have. And by bringing less familiar instruments and texts before large and attentive audiences, new works in these genres enrich the repertoire in ways uniquely their own. Best of all, they provide an opportunity for composers to build bridges to the orchestral world in collaboration with the artists who constitute the core constituency of that field.
There might not be any prizes for it, but the rewards are many.
Special thanks to Tsuna Sakamoto, Sylvia Alimena and the members of the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra for permission to use their archival recording of Tom Myron’s Viola Concerto in this article.
Tom Myron enjoys ongoing creative relationships with orchestras, chamber ensembles, soloists, choreographers, filmmakers and television producers from Maine to Mexico. Projects for 2005 include a new concerto for violinist Elisabeth Adkins and the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, a recording studio collaboration with saxophonist James Merenda and the score for a film about Henry David Thoreau from Films by Huey. Tom Myron lives in Portland, Maine with his wife, Portland Museum of Art chief curator Jessica Nicoll, and their daughter, Vivian.