Interview for Limelight Magazine with Angus McPherson
What was your way in to this piece?
The piano concerto came to me in a burst of inspiration. I had been working on a piece that was going to be the concerto and then one morning I work up and felt a new piece waiting for me, hanging in the air. I knew that this was the right piece for Vivian and the orchestra. I scrapped the first version and wrote this new one almost entirely in one sitting. So vivid it was, it felt like I was observing a brightly coloured apparition waiting to be made real through music. This became basis of the piece. I know the pianist Vivian Choi very well for a very long time. We met at the age of 12 as high school students at Ravenswood. Vivian has been a close colleague ever since. In the build-up to the composition we undertook two pilgrimages together. The first being a journey between Florence and Assisi in Italy and the second being the west coast of Ireland to the Marian Shrine of Knock. These journeys informed both the Requiem and the Concerto, both of which were written for Vivian. Three big inspirations behind the piece were the intercession of Saints and Angels in times of need or change, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Liszt’s compilation of piano suites entitled Years of Pilgrimage. These fit very well with themes I have been involved with for a long time including transcendence of the soul portrayed through a journey and the observance of nature along the way. In recent years I have worked extensively with Walt Whitman’s epic poem Songs of the Open Road which has featured prominently in my work and it falls well within realm of themes explored in this piece.
What do you find intriguing about Dante’s Breatrice?
Beatrice was a guide sent from the otherworld to show Dante the way back to the right path. In this journey Dante finds himself travelling through Hell, Purgatory and Paradiso. Beatrice was sent by Saint Lucia, who represents growing light from the winter solstice, representing the growth of knowledge and understanding. Dante had become lost and could no longer see the right path before him. He was confronted by three dangerous animals who blocked his way and he could no longer proceed. Beatrice is a mysterious character who represents balance and good council not unlike Lady Justice who wears a blindfold and holds balance scales and a sword. By showing Dante the fate of the souls, Dante is left to make up his own mind and come to his own conclusions. On our journey from Florence to Assisi we felt the presence of Dante, Beatrice and Santa Lucia, finding countless images, icons and resonances of their presence in churches and museums and this emphasised the nature of our pilgrimage as we travelled to the home of Saint Francis and Saint Clare.
What were some of the things you tried to keep in mind as your were composing this concerto?
The most important thing I kept in mind while writing the concerto was love for the music. When thinking too much about the complexity and technicalities of writing the piece and the responsibility writing for such a gifted soloist such as Vivian with such a wonderful orchestra, the task became daunting and overwhelming. It was easy for me to lose perspective. My way to write the piece was simply to enjoy making it and allowing the music to flow whilst maintaining a sense of awe and excitement for all the colours of the orchestra.
What are the challenges and pleasures of writing for these forces?
The biggest challenge for me is always about time, finding the perfect form before the sand slips through the hourglass of a deadline. The sense of knowing a piece is waiting and confronting the mountain of hours it takes in which to realise a composition that can be communicated to a crowd of other people can become terrifying. The only way to proceed is small steps, one after the other until it piece is complete. Composition is hard and lonely work but the rewards of hearing a performance of the piece live after months or years of imagining it, is tremendous and ecstatic, better than any material possession or gift.
Can you tell us a little about the titles of the Concerto’s movements?
The titles of the chapters in the music mark signs along found along the way of the pilgrimage that Dante may have observed but are not mentioned in the story. Small things found on the path that one could easily overlook such as the line of yellow flowers that follow a natural spring or the sun behind a veil of clouds that takes on the appearance of the moon or the gasping awe of the river that flows beneath a footbridge. Ariel, weighted with symbolism, represents a guiding spirit, one of revelation and a vision of the beauty and power of nature. Our Lady of Tears represents the empathetic spirit that draws the Journeyer back to the right path through forgiveness, loving kindness and a glorious vision for the future.
How would you describe the relationship between soloist and orchestra?
In this piece the orchestra emphasises the colour, shape and form of the soloist’s line like wings of a bird that let the soloist fly. The orchestra does not work against the soloist but in communion, where soloist and orchestra are working together to create a brightly coloured vision. The music is a portrait of the soloist and the colours of the orchestra are like the glistening glass mosaic of a gothic stained-glass window. The curvature of the music and the shadows and darkness of its landscape are highlighted by glistening translucent streaks of ruby, emerald, amber and sapphire.
How important is this commission for you and your career?
The notion of a career sits uncomfortably with the compulsion to write music. Pursuing music is a way of life rather than a career. This commission carved a path before me to be able to explore the depth and wealth of colours that the orchestra has to offer, a curiosity for the palette of sounds and the alchemy of orchestral combinations. To me writing for Willoughby Symphony allowed me to set foot upon an epic journey to another world where the music tells a story of landscapes, visions, colours and revelations. I wrote this piece as a gift for Vivian who has been an endless source of inspiration for me since the time we were children.