Concerto in Pieces was commissioned by the BBC as a celebration of two major events in British history of music: the 1995 tercentenary of the death of Henry Purcell and the 50th anniversary of Benjamin Britten's Young Persons' Guide to the Orchestra in 1996.
Being non-British my first reaction to the commission was a mixture of feeling very honoured and - as a foreigner - being quite scared of 'messing around' with two such holy cows of a national musical tradition not my own.
On the other hand, the subjects stipulation the commission weren't that far away from my own upbringing: having been a member of Copenhagen Boys' Choir I'd come across both composers more than once, in fact, on the home front (so to speak) my father owned quite a collection of old 78s with Purcell's music, which I heard all the time and loved very much. Later on in life, composers of Britten's mould - the highly professional orchestral dramatist - became a role model for my own artistic endeavours, so - having personally obtained that status or not - the urge to and challenge of trying to do a 'show-piece' with an education angle based on Purcell presented too much compositional temptation for me to resist.
One thing was clear, though, from the beginning: if I wanted to come out of this venture alive, I'd have to choose a Purcell theme as far away in shape and nature as possible from the marvellous one Britten selected for ”Young Persons' Guide…” (a dance tune from Abdelazar, or the Moor's revenge). For me to choose the same tune, well, I'd just as well jump out of the window...
So, I decided to use the fast, swinging 'Ho-Ho-Ho witches' chorus from the beginning of Act II of 'Dido and Aeneas'. The original part chorus appears intact, seamlessly merging into Variations both sections composed for full orchestra. Then, the first of several spoken commentaries appears, commentaries summing up as well as introducing what's going on in terms of orchestral activities. As opposed to Britten I focus more on the various combinations of instruments - the many faces of the symphony orchestra - rather than merely presenting the individual instruments. However, Concerto in Pieces (the title hardly calls for further elaboration) may be performed without the commentaries, as an uninterrupted set of variations.
Variation II – again a movement growing organically of the previous one – focuses on the orchestral phenomenon of “relay-running: various instruments taking over from each other, mainly to ease the problem of breathing and generally to give everybody “a break” in technically and physically demanding passages.
Variation III occurs more “head-on” than variation I and II. This time the technique of “hoqueting” is being explored: a melodic line or group of musical statements moving around intact between the various instruments or group of instruments. In this case the (unlikely) similarity between piano and trombone (in a certain register) and the more obvious kinship between horns and trumpets set off the variation and gradually the entire orchestra is being engaged in a huge collective dialogue.
Variation IV is a “blues-like” recitative for solo saxophone (alto) and hushed divided strings, peppered with synthesizer, “bending” flutes – and horns and tubular bells and gongs being lowered into water pails! The original theme – one could say – is already now well under water; the whole set of variations is like a walk through a mirror-gallery: we start out with the recognizable “portrait”, but the further we get into the hall of mirrors, the more disfigured and contorted the picture becomes. But it’s still the same original walking by!
Anyway, after this, the first variation featuring a solo-instrument, Variation V pops up like a film edit, this time the tuba being the centre of attention: an Air for tuba (this wonderful mellow instrument) in an accompaniment of “yapping” horns, trumpets and trombones (various mutes like wa wa), imitating human voices. Mr. Purcell himself appears fractionally in total recognizability here and there, paving the way for Variation VI in which the original “portrait” is being completely and utterly atomized: a percussion (piano) and double bass variation paying homage to the mood of the original “Ho-Ho-Ho”: that of mockery and ferocity.
In Variation VII the harp takes the solo part in an almost “cubistic” version of the initial theme, surrounded by descending lines in flutes, low trumpets, vibraphone and celesta. He concluding chorus of Dido… “With dropping wings ye Cupids come” hovers lazily on the horizon.
Thus having reached other planets of this particular Purcell “solar system”, Variation VIII is a recitative for harmon muted trumpet and strings playing near the bridge (sul ponticello) and hammering with the wood of the bow (col legne battuto): an “icy” fantasy on the last recitative from Dido, in which he spirit of the Sorceress descends to Aeneas in the likeness of Mercury.
The penultimate movement, Variation IX, is a pizzicato intermezzo (with underlying double bass harmonics) taking us back to near-visibility again: Variation X: Finale Fugato, a huge, pulsating minimalist fugue on a “condensed” version of the original witches’ chorus. It is scored for full orchestra and towards the end horns, horns and trombones play in unison Purcell’s theme, right through the surrounding orchestral whirl. Towards the very end they rise, thus in a standing position leading the rest of “the band” in the “home run”.