A Passion for Piston

Classic Arts Features   A Passion for Piston
 
St. Louis Symphony principal clarinet Scott Andrews hopes to stoke a revival of interest in American composer Walter Piston, whose Clarinet Concerto he and the SLSO perform January 26-27.


Although he won two Pulitzer Prizes, wrote four seminal textbooks on music theory, and taught some of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Walter Piston (1894-1976) is largely unfamiliar to contemporary audiences.

"I think he's due for a revival," says SLSO Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews, who performs Piston's Clarinet Concerto with the Symphony and guest conductor Vassily Sinaisky on January 26-27. "I'm really looking forward to playing a piece like this that I don't believe is played as often as it ought to be; to be able to do it with a great orchestra, in a great hall — it's going to be thrilling."

When Andrews recommended the piece to David Robertson, in the summer of 2005, Robertson was enthusiastic. "He didn't know the work," Andrews recounts between sips of chai at a Central West End [of St. Louis] coffeehouse. "Of course, he likes to do new things, especially those that aren't often performed."

Andrews, who has never heard a live performance of the Clarinet Concerto, was first exposed to it ten years ago, through a limited-edition CD featuring a former teacher of his, Harold Wright. "I listened to it and thought it was intriguing," he says. "I was teaching at a school at the time, and I tried to get them interested in having me play it with the conservatory orchestra. I did have a couple of students working on it, but I never managed to get a performance done of it."

Conceived in 1967 as a set of four variations linked by cadenzas, Piston's Clarinet Concerto is technically demanding but surprisingly accessible, fully exploiting the range and sonority of the featured instrument without coming across as fussy or incoherent. "He obviously knew what he was doing," Andrews says, smiling at the understatement. "He was meticulous in his study of instrumental technique and tone color and range, but he doesn't push it beyond the limit where he thinks it's going to be fun for the performer — fun, but not easy, because there are certainly a lot of difficult passages."

Like much of the composer's work, the Clarinet Concerto reveals a deep sympathy and respect for musicians. "I must say I've always composed music from the point of view of the performers," Piston wrote. "I love instruments, and I value the cooperation of the performers. I believe in the contribution of the player to the music as written. I am very old-fashioned that way."

It is perhaps this old-fashioned quality that accounts for the composer's low profile today. Originally trained as an architect, Piston embraced clean lines and balanced forms. "Leonard Bernstein said that the greatest thing he learned from Piston was just how to structure something, how to come up with a shape and stay within the shape," Andrews says. "There is a very symphonic form to the Clarinet Concerto. Everything's very brief, but if you break it down and look at it, it's like a sonata opening movement, then a scherzo, then an adagio, and a sort of rondo finale. You definitely know what's happening structurally as the piece goes on, but the music never stops."

Despite his neoclassical tendencies, Piston was no fuddy-duddy. "He was fascinated with Arnold Schoenberg," Andrews notes. "I don't think he ever felt comfortable enough to go in that direction, but after he studied Schoenberg's 12-tone compositions, during the later part of his career, the work he produced, including the Clarinet Concerto, was very chromatic in its harmonic language."

The piece also demonstrates another, more down-to-earth influence: big-band dance music. "Piston was living in America in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, when Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were so popular," Andrews explains. "He liked that kind of dance music, and he really utilizes the clarinet's ability to convey that style."

For Andrews, a successful interpretation of the piece depends on balancing its contrasting elements. "It is quite playful most of the time, and what I want to do is take some things that are quite heavy technically and make them as light as possible," he says. "It's very chromatic and travels very quickly, and as it travels, the tone color that Piston extracts from the instrument changes. The tone color of the orchestra also changes, and the soloist has to be able to make some pretty quick transitions. And also as it travels, the technical demands of the instrument change. You could be playing in C major for eight bars, and it's very simple, and then the next thing you know you're in G-sharp, and everything becomes very crunchy. You have to do all that without making it sound as if it's becoming more difficult but also while relaying the fact that something is shifting, that it's going somewhere.

"But ultimately," he concludes, "although the harmonic language is heavy, it's not a heavy piece. I can't put into words what the piece of music is saying, but I know how it feels to me, and I know what feeling I want to convey. It's not a frivolous piece, but it should be a piece that people feel good about having heard."


Ren_ Spencer Saller writes about music for various publications including the Illinois Times.


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