John Plant, composer

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Concerto for Orchestra

Posted by John Plant on April 23, 2014 at 5:25 PM

Seventeen years ago Wanda Kaluzny commissioned my first orchestral work, dreams in the mirror, a setting of E. E. Cummings, performed in what was then the Erskine and American Church in Montreal. Last week they premiered my Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned in celebration of the orchestra’s fortieth anniversary, in Salle Bourgie: a magnificent new concert hall resulting from a ravishing transformation of the same building, now part of the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Three other premieres, all of them with voice, intervened, at Pollack Hall and Salle Claude-Champagne. This, however, was my first non-vocal orchestral work: regular readers will notice a trend here!


Wanda Kaluzny's preparation has always been so meticulous, and her interpretative insights into my work so perceptive, that I embraced this commission with fervour. I began by gorging myself on concertos for orchestra, renewing and deepening my acquaintance with Bartok’s, and discovering dozens of works - perhaps most remarkably, the unassuming but magically inventive one by Alexandre Tansman.


 Despite my confidence in maestra Kaluzny and her amazing musicians, I was a little apprehensive, particularly about the third movement: the string players have to execute extremely fast pizzicati - on the border of the humanly possible - while negotiating constant quicksilver metric changes. Similar challenges abound throughout the work. I needn’t have worried: not only did the musicians negotiate the most slippery passages with ease, they unerringly communicated the atmosphere of each passage and each transition.


One of the most enjoyable parts of the whole project was being invited to a pair of student concerts, during each of which the orchestra performed a different movement of the Concerto. I was then invited to field questions. The students came up with such stimulating and interesting questions: what was I trying to evoke in the first movement? A serendipitous question, because the answer had something to do with youth…


 The weather was not precisely my ally on April 15; just a couple of hours before the concert, a nasty, icy, windy snowstorm emerged from some dark cave and encouraged Montrealers to stay at home by the fire. (This recalled that first concert in 1997, when a late-March blizzard closed the highways and my dear friend Paul Campbell drove from Toronto through the storm to attend the concert, one step ahead of the road closures.) But those who came, including many wonderful friends - some of whom I had not seen for years - and my revered composition teacher Bruce Mather - received the work warmly. The whole concert was splendid: Haydn 104, Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, and a recently discovered bassoon concerto by Rossini, performed with rollicking and infectious zest by Josep Joaquim Sanchis Castellanos.


 I’ve posted an mp3 of the Concerto in the ‘Listen’ section of this site. I invite you to listen to it!

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