The concerto was premiered by the Boston Symphony, with Robert Levin as soloist, on February 17, 2005.
"As in many of my compositions, simple, familiar musical ideas are the starting point," the composer wrote before the piece's premiere. "A shape, a melodic fragment, a rhythm, a chord, a texture, or a sonority may ignite the appetite for exploration. How such simple insignificant things can be altered, elaborated, extended, and combined becomes the exciting challenge of composition."
"'Chiavi in mano,'" he added, "is the mantra used by automobile salesmen and realtors in Italy: Buy the house or the car and the keys are yours. But the more pertinent reason for the title is the fact that the piano writing is designed to fall 'under the hand' and no matter how difficult it may be, it remains physically comfortable and devoid of stress."
In a review of the premiere performance, Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer wrote, "The allusions—not quotations—range from Baroque briskness through Prokofievian percussive motor rhythms to torch song, jazz, rock, and honky-tonk with washboard accompaniment, all viewed through the lens of a personal, flexible, and highly chromatic musical language."
The other finalists were Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs, premiered by mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Chen Yi's Si Ji (Four Seasons), premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra. The jury was chaired by Ara Guzelimian, the senior director and artistic advisor of Carnegie Hall; the other jurors were jazz pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams (who also served on the jury last year); composer William Bolcom, a Pulitzer winner; musicologist George E. Lewis; and jazz critic Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune.
The prize recognizes a "distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year." It includes a cash award of $10,000.
The Pulitzer board also awarded jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk a special posthumous citation "for a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz." The citation, like Duke Ellington's special citation in 1999, seemed intended to acknowledge the longtime exclusion of jazz composers from serious consideration for the prize. (No jazz composer won the Pulitzer Prize until Wynton Marsalis received it in 1997 for Blood on the Fields; the board recently changed its rules to encourage the submission of jazz and other non-classical works.)
Wyner, the composer of more than 60 works, was previously a Pulitzer finalist in 1998, for Horntrio. His recent works include Commedia (2002), commissioned by pianist Emanuel Ax and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman; Praise Ye the Lord (1996), a psalm for soprano and orchestra commissioned by Dawn Upshaw and the 92nd Street Y; and Lyric Harmony (1995), an orchestral work commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the American Composers Orchestra.
He is the composer of many liturgical works, including the frequently heard Friday Evening Service for cantor and chorus. (His father, conductor and composer Lazar Weiner, was a major figure in the history of Yiddish art song.)
Born in Alberta, Canada, in 1929, Wyner grew up in New York City. He studied at the Juilliard School, Harvard, and Yale, and after winning the Rome Prize in 1953, spent three years at the American Academy in Rome. A pianist, he is a member of the Bach Aria Group and has performed as a soloist and chamber musician; he has also conducted chamber groups, vocal ensembles, and operas.
Wyner has taught at Yale, the State University of New York at Purchase, Cornell, Harvard, Tanglewood, and Brandeis, where he is professor emeritus of composition. He has won two Guggenheim fellowships and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's Elise Stoeger Award for lifetime contributions to chamber music, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, arts, and letters were endowed by a bequest from newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer and first awarded in 1917. The music prize, introduced in 1943, has gone to such major works as Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring (1945), Samuel Barber's Vanessa (1958), and John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls (2003), as well as more obscure and academic pieces. Last year, Steven Stucky won for his Second Concerto for Orchestra.