Having been trained in the styles of Josef Lhevinne and Artur Schnabel from the old-world pedagogue, Adele Marcus, whose fiery yet loving dedication to her pupils made us the best pianists we can be, I never thought during my Juilliard days that I would be producing global commissioning projects in the 21st century. The few new pieces we had to learn for competitions that were commissioned for the competition hardly scratched the surface. Being a Horowitz/Rubinstein fan, that was the style and the repertoire that I thought would extend into the next century. Well, it has, though due to the decline of music education and parental education in this genre, it has become increasingly difficult to perpetuate the traditions. A recent NY Times article by Anthony Tommasini discussed the opposite poles of hot-blooded pianists versus colder–well, let’s say more straight forward interpretive artists that don’t over-deliver the goods. I was taught to be somewhere in the middle–all the great pianists played like that. Mr. Horowitz often said, not too fast, not too slow. So here I am–wishing I was in the 1920s, playing ‘Rare Gems of the Golden Age’ and thinking my Prokofiev 2 and 3 will make a career, along with Liszt’s ‘Feux follets’ and the Strauss ‘Blue Danube’ Waltz arranged by Schulz-Evler. Get with the program, Biegel–times-a-changin’–and you have to go with the flow. Since I always liked pop music and writing lots of choral music, I decided to keep the traditions and add to them. I added Lalo Schifrin’s ‘Concerto no. 2′ and Leroy Anderson’s ‘Concerto in C’. Them through Alicia Zizzo, I added the restored ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and then came the big step–commissioning new music–which was a thought on a whim–when a kindly gentleman offered to assist me in my career financially (which never did materialize)–and I said, ‘How about a new concerto.’ I chose Ellen Taaffe Zwilich–sent her my cds–and we put our heads together to celebrate the Millennium. I shared my title with her for the ‘Millennium Fantasy’ and she liked it. After great efforts, over 25 orchestras came on board and Ellen’s fee was met. With Russell Peck’s Tympani Concerto with 39 orchestras, they were the first largest consortiums ever. Tonight, I perform the NY Premiere of the Zwilich work with the American Symphony with Leon Botstein conducting at Bard College.
The Millennium project started the course. I’d approached John Williams and John Corigliano, though they were involved in too many other projects to add a piano concerto. Classically trained Charles Strouse already had a concerto before he penned ‘Bye Bye, Birdie’ and ‘Annie’ plus many other hit shows. He composed ‘Concerto America’ for me, which was to become the first 50 state project. It blends his musical life, through dance forms and snippets of his own famous shows–but held together masterfully with original themes. September 11, 2001 changed the world and dof course, the concerto. having seen the Twin Towers aflame, it also changed the total happy color of the work. What Strouse does with ‘America the Beautiful’ in the center of the work is emotionally amazing–altering the pitch every phrase–amazing! The piece received its World Premiere with the Boston Pops in June 2002, Keith Lockhart conducting. I think the audience expected ‘Annie’ and got a major concerto. It was then performed in Honolulu with Maestro Samuel Wong later in 2002.
Moving ahead, Peter Schickele was to be my next endeavor. He said in 2003–not yet. He wasn’t in the mode to compose a piano concerto–thoug, how can he ever escape the genre? I am still waiting, though he did ask for my cds–a major step forward–and he would compose something quite brilliant and important for the 21st century piano repertoire. In November 2003, I spoke with my friend Daniel Dorff who asked, ‘If you had your choice, who would you ask to compose a new piano concerto?’ (Daniel is a marvelous composer–he probably wanted me to say ‘you!’–and he actually will compose a concerto for me that is to be commissioned for youth orchestras and by youth orchestras–the Etowah Youth Orchestra will perform the World Premiere in Gadsden, Alabama in May 2007, and the NY Premiere in Carnegie Hall in June 2007 with me as soloist–and we are inviting youth orchestras to be part of the project now.)
My reply to Daniel: ‘Lowell Liebermann.’ We attended the Juilliard School together and he is fantastic–he used to pop into my practice room and say, ‘Try this–I just wrote it–tell me what you think.’ It was a natural–and lo and behold, Lowell’s Third Piano Concerto will receive its World Premiere with the Milwaukee Symphony May 12-14, 2006, with Andreas Delfs conducting. (One day I’ll blog about how that came about–not easy–but rather smoothly thanks to Evans Mirageas and the young dynamic CEO Mark Hanson, who has worked his way up the managerial ladder in the ASOL.) It will also be the first global project of its kind, with 17 orchestras in the US, a European premiereee in Germany (Schleswig Holstein Symphony Orchestra) in February 2007 and a Canadian Premiere with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 2007. I am awaiting replies from orchestras in the UK, South America, Scandinavia, New Zealand and Australia. Even Monte Carlo and other cities, where Lowell’s music has been performed and I have performed as well. I anticiapte another marvelous concerto by Lowell.
Moving ahead, I had spoken with Richard Danielpour in early 2003, who was to compose his next piano concerto for me, after the one for Gary Graffman and the cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma. Yes–we were also at Juilliard at the same time. He decided after a few months to can the idea of the full concerto and proposed a work for piano and percussion–slashing the commission fee in half, which I had already found funding for, fortunately. I will perform this new work in the 2006-07 season with the brilliant Canadian percussion ensemble, Nexus.
With my love of pop music, I found my way to the tireless and famous producer, David Foster. We have a friendship based on the mutual admiration society–he respects my classical playing and I respect his pop composing and producing–hey, Barbra Streisnad, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Chicago, Josh Groban, Michael Buble, etc–that’s big stuff–not to mention everything else he does–I recorded 17 of his songs in my solo piano transcriptions for PianoDisc due out this month, as well as my solo arrangements of the complete ‘Josh Groban Debut Songbook’ (with three from his second cd) as well as ‘The Best of Leroy Anderson’ in their solo piano arrangements by the composer. The Foster and Groban pieces lend themselves to the solo genre quite nicely. Going a step further, Yamaha asked me to record the solo version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” for PianoSoft, along with Grieg’s “Holberg Suite”. The Vivaldi is interesting as one can hear where Beethoven got many ideas for the Sonatas Opus 2 no. 2 and the ‘Appassionata’ Opus 57.
What lies ahead? 2010-11–Adolphus Hailstork’s 2nd, and hopefully a Peter Schickele Piano Concerto in between–I’ll keep you posted. The best part of all of this is that in generations to come, there will be a few more piano concerti available to them. I’m happy to have been part of their creation.