Commissioned jointly by the Saint Louis Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic
Concerto for Orchestra begins slowly, quietly, and simply, on a unison F-sharp that emerges from the depths of the orchestra. I had imagined a long and large landscape that had a feeling of space and distance. From the beginning I wanted to convey this sense to let the listener understand that the proportions of the piece would be spacious and that the musical materials would travel a long road.
The energy of the piece emerges through the contrast of big alternating chords with little fast motives. These take on bigger and bigger shapes, picking up larger textures as they whirl around in fast repeated figures. There is a strong sense of direction in this piece, as in all my music, and a feeling of ascent, which comes not only from the scale motives, but from tempos, rhythms, and dynamics that cooperate to produce the different intensities.
Although it had been my intention to write a work in two parts, the content of the musical materials led me to a different form. Instead of coming to a full halt at the climactic midpoint of the composition, I felt the arrival could be answered and connected by a series of unisons (on the note B) traversing the orchestral palette. This reaction calms things down, carries the piece forward towards its slow central section, and provides a seam that harks back toward the unison opening of the work and connects the 30-minute span of the concerto. Unity between the two halves is also provided by the slow-fast structure and by several shared motives, particularly the four-note motive that appears early in the piece and shapes the final fast section.
In every sense, Concerto for Orchestra is my biggest work to date. It's the first piece purely for orchestra I've written since Silver Ladders in 1986, but it follows three solo concertos for clarinet, flute, and violin and reflects that experience, enabling me to take more risks between soloists and orchestra. Whereas Silver Ladders highlighted four solo instruments, here not only solos, but duos, trios, and other combinations of instruments form structural, timbral, and emotive elements of the piece. As in all my music, I am working here on motivating the structure, trying to be sensitive to how an idea reacts to or results from the previous ideas in the strongest and most natural way a lesson I've learned from studying the music of Beethoven. Although technically demanding, the virtuoso sections are an integral part of the music, resulting from accumulated energy, rather than being designed purely as display elements. I thus resisted the title Concerto for Orchestra (with its connotations of Bartók, Lutoslawski, and Husa), and named the work only after the composing was completed, and even then reluctantly.