About this Piece
Length: ca. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (chimes, crotales, cymbals, suspended cymbals, bass drum, graduated drums, glockenspiel, tuned gongs, lath on leather, marimba, tam tam, triangle, vibraphone), piano, harp, guitar, strings, and solo English horn
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)
Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences know William Kraft well as a composer, conductor, and timpanist. He was the orchestra's Composer-in-Residence from 1981 to 1985, and he founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in 1981. He had previously been a member of the orchestra for 26 years - eight as a percussionist and eighteen more as Principal Timpanist. He was also assistant conductor of the orchestra from 1969 to 1972.
Kraft has written several large-scale works for the Philharmonic, including the Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra (1964), Contextures: Riots - Decade '60 (1967), the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1972-73), Andirivieni (1977), Interplay (1984), and Contextures II: The Final Beast (1987). Kraft composed the English Horn Concerto especially for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's English horn player, Carolyn Hove, as a follow-up to Encounters XI, a work for English horn and percussion he composed for Hove and the orchestra's Principal Percussionist, Raynor Carroll, that premiered at a Green Umbrella concert in March 1999. Hove and Kraft worked together closely during the composition of the earlier work, and its success led to the present commission. The English Horn Concerto's subtitle, "The Grand Encounter," situates it as the latest in the series of "encounters" and reflects the fact that it is on a much larger instrumental scale than the previous works, all but one of which were for percussion and one solo instrument.
In composing the Concerto, Kraft revisited an idea he first had with Andirivieni, the Tuba Concerto he wrote in 1977. The English horn soloist joins three pairs of instruments to create three trios. These trios occupy an interstitial space, physically and musically "between" the orchestra and the soloist.
"I first did it with the Tuba Concerto," Kraft explained recently from his office at UC Santa Barbara. "The reason for it is that both the tuba and the English horn are relatively monochromatic instruments. With the Tuba Concerto, I had [Roger Bobo, then-Philharmonic tuba player and dedicatee of the score] play with different groups to change the character of his role. He had to play differently with different groups. The English horn is similar in that it doesn't have the gradations of color and dynamics you find in other instruments: the violin most of all, then the cello, the viola, then the woodwinds, then the brass, and finally, the percussion. The trio makes sure that it's never boring; it adds color to the solo part."
The three trios are seated trio I stage left, trio II stage right, and trio III center. The soloist moves from trio to trio. Percussion (mostly pitched instruments) and harp (along with the soloist) comprise Trio I, alto flute and guitar make up the other instruments in Trio II, and solo violin and solo cello are joined by the English horn to create Trio III.
"The Concerto is in one continuous movement with three pairs of inner sections," Kraft explains. "Each pair begins with the soloist and trio, whose material is then taken up by the orchestra. One could consider it a contemporary version of the concerto grosso."
The Concerto's harmonic language reflects the influence of what Kraft calls American Impressionism, that is, the Americanization of the French Impressionism of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Kraft himself has acknowledged several important works that define the idiom - jazz trumpeter and composer Bix Beiderbecke's In a Mist (with its use of impressionist harmonic language characterized by pandiatonicism, whole tone scales, and parallel seventh and ninth chords); the music of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, David Raksin, and Vernon Duke; and George Gershwin, especially in his opera Porgy and Bess (1935). With Gershwin, his admiration of French Impressionism, especially the music of Ravel, came through more and more in his music, in what Kraft describes as a "sophisticated amalgamation." Unfortunately, Gershwin died in 1937 at age 38, before the amalgamation found its complete expression.
Kraft has been trying to see the amalgamation through in his works since 1980. "Around 1980, I made a decision to be more myself, not to borrow techniques. My roots lie in the music of Debussy, Ravel, and jazz (as arranger, pianist, and drummer). The omni-present techniques coming from Western Europe and dominating the American scene for practically three decades after the second World War inhibited this personal expression. But, at the same time, jazz (as a generic, not localized term) pianists and arrangers, in addition to the aforementioned composers, were enlarging the harmonic palette of impressionism.
"As a student in New York, I heard sophisticated pianists in clubs and bars - Cy Coleman, Stan Freeman, Saul Davis (he sounded like Debussy playing American songs) - and then the progressive jazz ("bebop") pianists and arrangers - Bud Powell, Horace Silver, and Gil and Bill Evans.
"I believe jazz mixed with the extension of Impressionist harmonies constitutes a valid argument for American Impressionism to be accepted as a truly American idiom. This idiom is central to all my works since 1980, and certainly to the English Horn Concerto.
"The first three notes of the English horn's entrance are related to the theme played by the horns in the opening measures of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony. The fragment of that motive that appears in the flutes and oboes in the Sibelius becomes the motive that begins the fast sections of my Concerto. These motives are fundamental to the entire structure of each piece. I thought Esa-Pekka might appreciate the gesture."
-- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/ Annotator. He holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA.