I’ll be conducting the premiere of Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra a week from tonight. Revenant is my fourth concerto (I suppose one could call it my fifth, but that’s another story); at this point I’ve developed a very specific take on how concertos should operate.
First and foremost, any concerto I write is going to be primarily about the soloist and the solo instrument. One of my pet peeves is sitting through a concerto in which the soloist is a mere appendage to the Great Genius of a composer who is determined to take center stage at all costs. I’m particularly annoyed when the soloist is drowned out by immense orchestral forces that feature a range of color no single instrument can possibly compete with.
(I suppose this is an understandable mistake for a composer to make: there are so few opportunities to write for orchestra, it’s easy to go overboard when the chance arrives.)
Having said that, a concerto without a driving creative personality is an empty experience, a tightrope walk, at best. The trick for the composer is to measure his/her presence in the composition — to be, in the best sense, a collaborator, guiding the proceedings in a way that never distracts attention from the main purpose of the piece, which is to showcase the mastery of the performer. The way I approach this problem is to give my soloist a measured balance of technical and artistic challenges.
So Revenant’s listeners will hear fast tonguings, sustained high notes, agile leaps — all of the things that test a horn player’s chops. But most of the horn part will have purely musical meaning — any good player could play the notes in these passages, but only the great ones will play them with the fullest sense of context, shaping and purpose.
And therein lies my participation in the proceedings, my personal touch. Anyone can write difficult music, but writing a coherent, twenty-minute piece that rewards the performer’s talent for pacing, form and dramatic timing takes a fair amount of focus and compositional chops.
Revenant is in three movements: Resonance, Revenant and Revelry. (A revenant, by the way, is someone who returns from the dead.) The first movement is a dirge, or, more accurately, the memory of a dirge. The second movement is a simple song-form, with a melody that, instead of returning, floats away into the distance. The third movement is a dance: short, fast, life-affirming.
I had thought, when composing the piece, that I was addressing issues surrounding the death of my father. It came as a surprise to me when I realized, close to completion, that the piece was really about me, about losing one’s way, and stumbling back into a renewed awareness and appreciation of life.
Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra will premiere on Friday, February 25th at 8:00 in Crawford Hall on the campus of the North Carolina School of the Arts. I will conduct the Carolina Chamber Symphony, with David Jolley as soloist. The performance will be part of the 2005 International Horn Society’s Southeast Workshop. The program will also include Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 31, featuring horn players from the Berlin Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Charlotte Symphony.