Commissioned: Theater Chamber Players of the Kennedy Center
World Premiere: March 5, 1994
Sextet is a slightly unusual work in the woodwind/piano literature in that it is composed for left-hand piano and for the full woodwind quintet. The two great masterworks for this medium are, of course, Mozart and Beethoven’s Quintet which are for two-handed piano and woodwind quartet (!), leaving out the flute. This omission has frustrated flutists for two centuries, and many existing wind quintets are eager to have a work in which their flutist can somehow at least participate in the concert, even if the Mozart and Beethoven are not available to them.
Thus my sextet, an instrumental rarity in the existing literature, will hopefully fulfill a need. The work is dedicated to Leon Fleischer and was commissioned by Dina Kosten and the Theatre Chamber Players of Kennedy Center. It is in four movements, cast in traditional genre forms: Prelude, Aria, Scherzo (Plaisanterie), and Toccata. Though quite contrasting in mood and character—an important (and to me vital) feature of suit-forms of the past—the four movements have certain traditional formal elements in common: either a central climax (‘arch’ or ‘pyramid’ form) or its opposite, a relaxation of tempo and intensity in the middle (‘inverted pyramid’). In the Scherzo this central episode takes the form of a virtuosic digital display for the pianist (at double tempo). Its subtitle, Plaisanterie, may ring a bit hollow to some players, for the movement is “unpleasantly” demanding, challenging and technically virtuosic.
A note about the piano part: it is obviously an unavoidable and inherent limitation to be restricted to five fingers rather than the usual ten. This represents a real challenge to the composer, for lots of otherwise ‘wonderful ideas’ are suddenly not available or feasible. This is where the two sustaining pedals of the modern piano come to the rescue, in turn challenging the composer—and the performer—to keep the harmonies clear, logical and unblurred.