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Fire and A Pick of the Week: Harpsichord Concerto

My blood is pumping fast today because we had a building evacuation which turned out to be the real thing as the roof of the building next to ours was on fire.  So forgive the tardiness of my Pick of the Week.

It's easy to say that Glass came slowly to the concerto form.  The composer didn't write his first concert piece for orchestra until 1987 with the Violin Concerto No.1 which I still consider something of a high-water mark.  Since then he's gone on to write nine other concertos to date.  Something as a surprise was his decision to write a harpsichord concerto in the year 2002.  Most of the time Glass sticks (stuck) to the traditional 3-movement structure and generally emphasizes the "showpiece" nature of the concerto. 

Some of the concertos I feel are a mixed bag, like the Concerto Grosso (originally the Concerto for Three Ensembles) and Piano Concerto No.2.  All these pieces of course have their merits but I feel strongly that the Harpsichord Concerto accomplishes everything which it sets out to do.

When writing a concerto for the "biggies,": the preferred concerto instruments: violin and piano, there are a million other great concertos which will immediately be called up for comparison.  However, with this pieces like Glass' Saxophone Quartet Concerto and this Harpsichord, players of the instruments are quite happy to have an exciting addition to their repertoire.  

This Harpsichord Concerto got off to a rough start when the original harpsichordist fell ill, and then the replacement got injured. At the last moment they managed to find baroque specialist Jillon Stoppels Dupree.  Since her specialty was not modern music she was a little hesitant. However, by her own admission she became "hooked."  I risk upsetting some people, but when you look at the baroque concerto repertoire it's a finite musical experience.  Concertos at that time were well crafted, variously inspired, short or slightly longer pieces ranging in the 8-15 minute range, quite unlike the modern-concerto-as-serious-composition lull we find ourselves in.

I think back to Mark Swed's liner notes for the release of Kronos Quartet performing Glass' quartets.  In approaching the composition of the fifth quartet, Glass said, and I'm paraphrasing, that before writing a string quartet it's as if composers take a deep breath and try to write the most serious music they can. Instead, Glass aspired to write the most "musical" piece that he could, which he then said "is perhaps the most serious subject of all."

So here we have this little Harpsichord Concerto.  The world of music was never going to crumble and heave from a new harpsichord concerto being born . But I think it's fair to say that it's one of the more satisfactory listening experiences from beginning to end that I've had in the past ten years. 

The first movement is what people would call "typical Glass."  The second movement, the slow movement, is my favorite.  Like the rest of the concerto it's simple enough and has a transparent construction, but it's the Glassian/classical build up of dissonance and release with a stunningly beautiful consonant melody.  Classicism in all its marvelous simplicity works well in a harpsichord concerto!  and the way it is achieved in this modern incarnation is by Glass "holding" a note with a somewhat annoying whole-note trills…giving way to the theme.  It's just wonderful.


Harpsichord Concerto – MVT II

Then the last movement is a groovy upbeat number which again could only be modern and could be by no other composer.

2 thoughts on “Fire and A Pick of the Week: Harpsichord Concerto”

  1. Piano Concerto No. 2 is PG’s best concerto (especially on the Nebraska Public TV performance of the premiere) and the Violin Concerto No. 1 ranks last (still a nice piece as it is Glass of course). Love the Harpsichord Concerto!

  2. I agree with Steve on Piano #2 which is outstanding, and especially for me the last movement. Usually I prefer the slow middle movements, and absolutely love the middle movement of the Concerto Grosso. Also it was the middle movement of the first violin concerto that hooked me on Glass. But Richard is right to give the Harp. I was also thrilled that the Violin #2, American Four Seasons was broadcast. A spectacular concerto that I would love to see performed. It must work up quite a sweat.

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