The New York Philharmonic will unveil one of the season's commissioned works (February 1-3) when Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the World Premiere of his own Piano Concerto with soloist Yefim Bronfman. Then, on February 6, the two will sit down with composer Steven Stucky at a Hear & Now concert for a discussion of the work followed by a full performance. In this preview conversation, Mr. Stucky chats with the composer-conductor and the pianist about their collaboration.
When did you start working together?
Yefim Bronfman: It was in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, I think in the late 1980s, maybe 1990. There was a recording project there. Then later we recorded in Los Angeles‹the three Bartók concertos, then the two Shostakovich. By now we have worked together quite often.
Esa-Pekka Salonen: I remember that first time in London very well. I thought, "This guy is one of the greatest pianists I have ever heard." He had limitless technique, but also a sort of aristocratic musicality, taste, an amazing sense of sonority ...
YB: ... that must have been somebody else!
And now, almost two decades later, your musical partnership is producing some-thing really big. How did this commission come about? Was it proposed by the orchestra, or ...
YB: By me. I have been begging him ever since I first learned Dichotomie [Salonen's solo piano work]. I thought, "Here is somebody who could write a great piano concerto."
Have you premiered other new concertos?
YB: No, it's my first time taking that very risky endeavor.
Is the piece difficult?
YB: Unfortunately, yes. I worked a long time, very hard, to learn Dichotomie, and I can see this is just as hard. Some things are just so hard to get into the hands ...
EPS: That's interesting to hear. When I gave you the first 15 minutes of the piano part a while back, you seemed so cool about it; nothing seemed to bother you, so I went back and wrote some hellishly difficult stuff at the end.
YB: I just hope I can play it!
But can't you negotiate with the composer if something seems unworkable?
YB: First I try everything to make it work; I really go all the way trying, then if I find something is still impossible for me I might have to negotiate.
In the Classical period, the pianist sometimes improvised his own cadenzas in concertos. Is there any improvisation in this one?
EPS: Sort of. There are two sections where the pianist improvises on one note‹in one phrase, for example, he improvises on the note D, but in every octave of the keyboard. I thought of writing that myself, but then I realized that he knows what he can do much better than I do.
YB: I can only do so much!
EPS: I have never seen the limits so far.
Esa-Pekka, the context for your premiere is a program that also includes two orchestral pieces, Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin and his orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. How do you see the program as a whole?
EPS: All the music is, so to speak, "about the piano," since both Tombeau and Pictures were originally piano pieces.
Is there also something about that Ravel orchestra that forms the right backdrop for hearing your music?
EPS: Maybe so. The music I write is connected to the music I conduct and the music I listen to. There is no such thing as composing with a tabula rasa‹a clean slate‹because the moment you choose to use notation, for example, or the moment you choose to write for certain instruments, this already carries a certain accumulated tradition. So to insulate yourself from the music of the past is not an option. There are two reasons. First, it's impossible. Second, music is supposed to be a language, and it can only function if there is some syntax. A language only means something if somebody else speaks the same language, too.
Composer Steven Stucky, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Music, has been resident composer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1988.