Shaping the future of the piano concerto

Nicolas HodgesThu 25th October 2018

Commissioning and premiering new piano concertos is a far from straight-forward process

I first met Pascal Dusapin in the early 2000s at the South Bank where he had a choral work performed. I remember how imposing he was, a tall man with dramatic hair and a personality to match! We spoke most warmly, both having known of the other for some years. He sent me his Etudes for piano which I later took up and performed around the world, including at Carnegie Hall.

Our relationship really solidified though when he wrote the piano concertino Jetzt Genau! for me (Gramophone review). The premiere was a great experience and we resolved to work more together. The next chance was Slackline which he wrote for me and the cellist Anssi Karttunen, and which we premiered at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.

The concerto À Quia which is on my new BIS disc is really a masterpiece. It is so full of colour and expression, and entirely individual. The title is a legal term meaning 'not being able to respond' and was found during the process of writing the piece - by the composer’s young daughter! 9/11 happened during the piece, as he noted in the full score, and something of the desperate drama of that time is in the second movement of the piece. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the piece is about 9/11 though - it’s really a contemplation of expression in many forms, including being struck dumb, most obviously in the extraordinary third movement starting with a lengthy piano solo unique in its bleakness.

I didn’t commission À Quia, but I have been involved in the birth of over 25 other piano concertos, including In Seven Days by Thomas Adès, Dialogues by Elliott Carter and Sotto Voce II by Wolfgang Rihm, as well as concertos by Gerald Barry and Salvatore Sciarrino. The process of commissioning is quite strange. Often I have a relationship with the composer already and ask for a piece, but sometimes the proposal comes from the composer, or from an orchestra which wants to bring us together. I never specify anything when I ask for a piece, I’m just happy to play what the composer produces. If I choose the right composer, she or he will be writing music I’m interested in anyway!

Sometimes the process is a bit bumpy. It was so with Simon Steen-Andersen’s Piano Concerto, which I’m giving the UK premiere of with BBC Scottish in January 2019. Having seen his endlessly surprising Black Box Music I immediately asked him for a piece and he immediately dismissed the idea - saying he didn’t have time. I was quite upset! But then months later he had a concrete idea for the piece, and got in touch with an orchestra at the ready. So all went well in the end. I’ve played it already 10 times and am recording it on DVD next year. The piece starts with a video of a grand piano being destroyed through a drop of eight metres - in slow motion - and this short clip provides both the visual and sonic material for the piece. I play both a big, healthy grand piano and a midi keyboard connected to a video system which produces a doppelgänger version of me playing the dropped piano. Sounds complicated but the whole effect is so well put together as theatre it works perfectly. As the piece progresses many sounds from the 'broken' and healthy pianos are explored in duet with the orchestra, and there is a great cadenza which ends up with the dropped piano dancing to a cakewalk … The whole thing is extraordinary!

At the moment I have seven concerto commissions under negotiation. Most of them are still Top Secret. Already announced is that the Berlin-based British composer Rebecca Saunders is writing me a concerto to be premiered at the Lucerne Festival in 2020. It’s a Roche Commission, and she’s the third British composer to be awarded one, after Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir George Benjamin. It’s going to be a big, powerful work - she’s really one of the most interesting composers writing today.

Back to Pascal Dusapin, he's planning to write me a new work for piano solo. I’m tremendously excited! It’s such a joy and and honour to work with such a range of great living composers.

Nicolas Hodges performs a recital of Liszt, Brahms, Elisabeth Lutyens, James Clarke and Hans Thomalia at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday, October 30. For information: wigmore-hall.org.uk

The recording of Dusapin’s Piano Concerto À Quia is released by BIS on November 10.

Nicolas Hodges

Born in London and now based in Germany, where he is a professor at the Musikhochschule Stuttgart, Hodges approaches the works of Classical, Romantic, 20th century and contemporary composers with the same questing spirit.

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