Sunday, July 23, 2017

Unusual concertos 41-50: From water to native American flute

The concerto for solo instrument(s) and orchestra is one of the most popular genres in classical music. However, I think 95+ % of all concertos have been composed for piano or violin. Previously I have run a series on concertos for less common instruments in this blog, reaching an amazing number of 100 in the end (all these posts were reset to draft end March). I will be summarizing these in ten posts in the course of the year, each covering ten unusual concertos, keeping the sequences the same as in the past.

[41] Water. What? This has to be one of the most unlikely concertante "instruments" - you would probably have to rank this under miscellaneous percussion. Tan Dun, best known for his film score Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, composed the only concerto for water and orchestra that I am aware of. It has not been released on CD, but there is a DVD of the concert as performed by David Cossin with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra directed by the composer. In addition, the complete concerto can be viewed in a different version on YouTube. Maybe not great music, but innovative for sure!

[42] Mandolin. In the baroque and classical era, this was a fairly popular concertante instrument (e.g. Vivaldi, Hummel), but as the orchestras became bigger and louder, its use almost disappeared. More recently, contemporary composers have shown an increased interest in its possibilities in concertante classical music. I have selected the concerto by Avner Dorman, performed by Eliran Avni and the Metropolis Ensemble under Andrew Cyr, available on a Naxos CD.

[43] Theremin.This is an instrument that was invented fairly recently (1928). The controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas which sense the position of the player's hands and control oscillators for frequency with one hand, and amplitude (volume) with the other, so it can be played without being touched. The electric signals from the theremin are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker. Like its cousin the ondes martenot, it has been used far more frequently in soundtracks than in serious classical music. I have a theremin concerto by Kalevi Aho, played by Carolina Eyck and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra under John Storgards, available on a BIS CD.

[44] Bayan. This is the Russian accordion, which differs in subtle ways from the Western accordion, and the Argentinean bandoneon. Not surprisingly, its use in classical music is largely limited to composers from the (former) Soviet Union. The best example of a bayan concerto is by the leading contemporary female composer Sofia Gubaidulina, titled Fachwerk. The version I selected is played by Geir Draugsvoll and the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra under Gimse, available on a Naxos CD.

[45] Musical saw (or singing saw). While used occasionally by amateurs in folk music, its use in serious classical music is extremely rare. In fact, this is the first instrument in the ongoing series, where I found information about a concerto without ever having heard it - it is not in my extensive CD collection, and I cannot find it on YouTube. Some information from Wikipedia: Divination By Mirrors for Saw and Strings (1998) by Michael A. Levine is a concerto scored for two string groups tuned a quarter-step apart and placed on opposite sides of the stage with a musical saw soloist playing in both pitch universes. I would love to hear it one day.....

[46] Cor anglais (or English horn). Rather confusingly neither a horn nor English. This beautiful melancholic instrument (one of my personal favourites) is actually technically a member of the oboe family. Concertos for this instrument as so often have really started to appear in the 20th century. The most beautiful example of a cor anglais concerto is the one published in 1989 by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. The version I selected is played by Normunds Schnee and the Riga Philharmonic Orchestra under Rusmanis, available on a Conifer CD.

[47] Barrel organ. Another example of a highly unlikely concertante instrument. I know of only one concerto for it, by Romanian-born French composer Marius Constant, best known for the iconic Twilight Zone theme song. It is played by Pierre Charial and the Nancy Symphony Orchestra under Kaltenbach, available on an Erato CD.

[48] Steelpan. Originating from Trinidad, this percussion instrument first appeared in classical music in Malcolm Arnold's delightful Commonwealth overture. I know of only one concerto for it, by American composer Jan Bach. It is played by Liam Teague and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Freeman, available on an Albany CD.

[49] Maracas. These rattles are typically used in a pair. Originating from Latin America, these percussion instruments have not penetrated classical music to any extent, although there may be some scores where they are included in the percussion group. I know of only one concerto for it, by American composer Ricardo Lorenz. It is played by Ed Harrison and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Freeman, available on an Albany CD.

[50] Native American flute. Although this instrument has gained some foothold in New Age music, its application in classical music is of course not wide-spread. The most notable is probably its inclusion in the orchestral score of Philip Glass' second piano concerto. I know of only one concerto for it, by American composer James DeMars, titled Spirit Horses. It is played by R. Carlos Nakai and an unnamed chamber orchestra under the composer, available on a Canyon Records CD.

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