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Conjurer: Concerto for Percussionist and String Orchestra (2007)

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First performed February 21, 2008, Evelyn Glennie, percussion, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor; Pittsburgh, PA

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rent score and parts from G. Schirmer Inc 

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Duration  35 minutes

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Program note

Cadenza, Movement I: WOOD
Cadenza, Movement II: METAL
Cadenza, Movement III: SKIN

When asked to compose a percussion concerto, my only reaction was horror.

All I could see were problems. While I love using a percussion battery in my orchestral writing, the very thing that makes it the perfect accent to other orchestral sonorities makes it unsatisfactory when it takes the spotlight in a concerto.

For starters, a percussionist plays dozens of instruments. Again, this is wonderful if his role is to color an orchestral texture: but if he (or she) is the main focus, it is terrible. The aural identity of the player is lost amid the myriad bangs, crashes, and splashes of the percussion arsenal. Only the visual element of one person playing all these instruments ties them together.

In addition, most of the instruments have no pitch at all (or very little), and don’t sustain a sound (like a violin or trumpet).

As a result, most percussion concerti I have heard sound like orchestral pieces with an extra-large percussion section. The melodic interest always rests with the orchestra, while the percussion plays accompanying figures around it.

Of course, one could limit oneself to writing for keyboard percussion: marimba or vibraphone, for example. Many concertos have been written like this, and the combination of using an instrument with definite pitches and restricting oneself to one instrument does focus the work on a single soloist.

I thought of all of this as I sat down to discuss my writing a percussion concerto. Obviously I had more than mixed views about this project, but something about the challenge fascinated me, too.

Many of my works begin this way. I pose a problem and write a piece as the solution. In this case, the problem is the following: How do I write a concerto for a solo percussionist playing many different instruments in which the soloist is always clearly the soloist (even with your eyes closed), and how do I write a concerto in which there are real melodies –and those melodies are introduced by the percussionist, not the orchestra?

I) WOOD
The pitched wood instruments are the xylophone and marimba. To supplement this, I constructed a “keyboard” of unpitched wooden instruments (wood block, claves, log drum, etc.) ranging from high to low and placed it in front of the marimba. The soloist could play pitched notes on the marimba and then strike unpitched notes on the wooden keyboard.

The initial cadenza starts with unpitched notes, but gradually pitched notes enter and various motives are revealed as well as ideas based upon the interval of a fifth. This interval will run through the entire concerto as a unifying force. After a climactic run, the orchestra enters, developing the 5th interval into a rather puckish theme. Soloist and orchestra develop the material and build to a climactic xylophone solo, and finally return to the opening theme.

II) METAL
The cadenza is for chimes (tubular bells) accompanied by tam-tams and suspended cymbals. It is loud and clangorous, with the motivic 5ths clashing together. The movement itself, however, is soft and long lined. The melody that will end the movement is introduced in the low register of the vibraphone, and the movement develops to a dynamic climax where the chimes return, and then subsides to a soft texture in the lower strings as the struck/bowed vibraphone plays its melody.

III) SKIN
The skin cadenza features a “talking drum” accompanied by a kick drum. The talking drum is played with the hands, and can change pitch as its sides are squeezed. Strings connect the top and bottom skins, and squeezing stretches them tighter – and raises the pitch. It provides a lively conversation with a kick drum: a very dry small bass drum played with a foot pedal and almost exclusively used as part of a jazz drum set. This cadenza starts slowly, but builds to a loud and rhythmic climax.

The movement then begins with the soloist and orchestra playing a savage rhythmic figure that accelerates to a blinding speed. A central section brings back the 5ths against a pedal timpanum that is played with the hands in a “talking drum” style. The accelerando returns, and leads to a wild and improvised cadenza using all the drums and a virtuoso finish.

Once it was complete, it occurred to me that the piece’s cadenza-into-movement form characterizes the soloist as a kind of sorcerer. The effect in performance is that the soloist doesn’t so much as introduce material as conjure it, as if by magic, from the three disparate choirs: materials which the orchestra then shares and develops; hence, the title CONJURER.

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                     — John Corigliano

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