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Matthew Aucoin

Publisher: AMP

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2016)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
38 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Programme Note
Matthew Aucoin Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2016)

Composer note:
A piece of music is a haven in time, yet it must also be escaped. Music makes contradictory demands on us: in any compelling musical work, the musical material has a kind of will to survive, a zest for life, a burning need for continuation. But to create a satisfying temporal form, the composer must find a way to end things. This can feel like an act of violence: the musical material wants to stay alive! Who am I to force it back into silence? In a successful piece, though, the violence enacted upon the musical material serves to reveal the deeper nature of its life-force: like any living thing, it was headed for extinction even when it burned brightest, and the form of the piece is the shape that its life needed to take.

The three movements of my concerto manifest three distinct relationships to time. This manifests also in the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra, which is a fraught question in any concerto. Just think of the vast range between, say, Mozart's piano concertos, where the winds hover over the keyboard line like sympathetic attendant deities (a relationship that Ravel borrowed in the slow movement of his G-Major concerto), and the Schoenberg piano concerto, in which both soloist and orchestra seem to be fleeing some gigantic landslide. In more recent years, György Ligeti's piano concerto delights in the piano's percussive essence, the sense that every striking of a key is the destructive — yet also fire-creating — blow of a hammer on an anvil. And Thomas Adès's In Seven Days imagines the piano as the God of the Old Testament, the spirit that blows through the emerging world, which is the orchestra itself.

In my first movement, the percussion seems to claim, right from the onset, that there's nothing left to say. The percussion forms an arid texture, a kind of uninhabited landscape that the piano is forced to walk through, looking for signs of life. The relationship between soloist and orchestra is tense and volatile throughout the movement: the soloist works desperately to control an inner chaos, which keeps surging up and which ultimately cannot be suppressed.

The second movement is a consolation. Here, both piano and orchestra seek to prolong the experience; the musical material is newly warm, even tender. The sudden shift in texture near the movement's end seems to be a gentle alarm bell going off, an alert that the dream has run its course and it's time to wake up.

The third movement is the piano's escape act. The strings play a light, feathery ostinato which the piano recognizes, uneasily, as a kind of doomsday clock, and which it tries to transcend. Near the movement's end, roughly where one might expect a cadenza in a classical concerto, the piano plays a brief passage that has nothing to do with the rest of the concerto: it's a vision of a different world. The orchestra quickly drags the soloist back to reality, and the movement ends with that same uneasy ostinato — but the soloist's vision can't be unseen.

— Matthew Aucoin

Shrouded in a percussion-filled haze, Matthew Aucoin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra began virtually unpitched, even the two-note piano chords sounding indistinctive upon entering. This developed into a thin-textured, descending line that pianist Conor Hanick transformed into a thought-provoking, meandering quip. At moments, the first movement battled along, aligning itself to the romanticism and dexterity of Liszt or Rachmaninov while carrying true influence from the likes of Ginastera and Ligeti. Never ceasing in its tenseness, the first movement felt like a struggle between piano and orchestra. Surprisingly, the orchestra seemed to carry more melody than the piano, which offered a rich variety of textures and colors. Nevertheless, the piano part was incredibly virtuosic, physical motions similar to a Liszt Concerto while emulating a Bartókian idea.

The second movement began with a D-flat major chord that repeated over and over (and over and over). The first two repeated notes sounded like the ghost of Schubert, but the longer it repeated, the more settled Hanick looked, and the more unsettled the audience felt. The piano inched into an exuberant expansion, transitioning into a repetitive chorale which, if the repeated notes had dissipated and harmonies changed ever so slightly, might have sounded similar to a Bach prelude. Glued together by reiterated sounds, the soloist requires an iron-clad focus, which tripped Hanick only once (very subtly) in one of the middle sections. When asked what the motivations were behind this movement, Aucoin mentioned that the first movement felt so large and so battle-like that he wondered, “What would happen if I just kept playing this D-major chord?” And so, the second movement was born out of an exhaustion and much-needed rest from the first movement. At times, it felt outright unpianistic, but its repetition created a sense of calm and familiarity that the piece needed.

The third movement brought the pianist clamoring out of the second movement, grasping to achieve a new melody, though the orchestra pulled the pianist back into the tradition of the first movement. The third movement came off like a short hiccup to finish the piece, exhausted after the long journey which Aucoin sent the orchestra and pianist. Rose’s straight, to-the-point conducting provided the orchestra with the beat that it needed and not much else; this ensemble rode the storm on its very own, its deep sense of knotted textures and ever-changing colors evident throughout the piece.
Rachel Fuller, Boston Musical Intelligencer,31/10/2017
It began with ominous drumrolls, evoking a procession of the condemned. The solo piano, played with a deft touch and cool sparkle by Conor Hanick, made a mad dash for freedom, spurred on by the orchestra. Octave doublings gave the sound a primeval urgency. The second movement rested on a relaxed pulsing rhythm in the piano; if you breathed along, you’d calm down, until whistling winds and thudding drums signaled a slide from contentment to resurging anxiety, glockenspiel joining the piano in insistent alarm. The perpetual motion of the first movement returned in the brief finale, the soloist fighting a tidal surge in counter motion with the orchestra. Hint, BMOP/sound: I’d buy that CD.
Zoë Madonna, Boston Globe,30/10/2017
The first movement used percussion to insinuate a doomsday atmosphere, and the syncopations of this movement were frequently violent. Rhythmic units would shorten in length and leap into an almost arrhythmic free fall as phrases went on as though they were rushing to a precipice. These moments of almost grotesque scherzando stood beside naked and naive tonal arpeggios and bare fifths oscillating with potential energy. Although some of these simpler moments were disruptive to the movement, it came to a conclusion spectacularly in its dark mode.

What Aucoin termed a “consolation,” the second movement’s beginning was brilliant in its portrait of hesitancy and self-enforced optimism. The pianist repeated (to himself, it seemed) the platitude of a single major chord in a simple and ponderous recurring rhythm. When Hanick finally switched to a new chord, listeners experienced the protagonist’s slow renewal, one that proved dreamlike, yet shadowed occasionally by the first movement’s darkness. It was achingly beautiful nonetheless…The last movement went quickly and had a wonderful zip to it. Like the first movement, it featured an idiomatic but wonderfully weird cadenza that Hanick performed exquisitely.
Edward Forstman,,08/10/2016
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