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About this Piece

Composed: 2014

Length: c. 20 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, percussion (almglocken, crotales, pitched gongs, suspended cymbals, vibraphone), harp, strings, and solo piano

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance (world premiere)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned Norman to write Release for Emanuel Ax’ Brahms Project, which included two duo recitals earlier this season featuring Brahms’ cello sonatas and selected songs, along with new pieces inspired by a famous Brahms musical motif. “Brahms’ friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim (being a true son of the Romantic era), declared that his motto was ‘Frei aber einsam’ (free but lonely),” Ax wrote. “For a special occasion, Schumann, Albert Dietrich, and Brahms composed a sonata – each contributing a movement – based on the notes F, A, and E. Brahms, not to be outdone, seems to have adopted a motto as well: ‘Frei aber froh’ (free but happy). The opening of his Third Symphony uses this motto in the notes F, A, and F. We have asked the composers if they would be willing to use those notes as a theme or motive in their pieces, and they have all agreed. We are hoping that this idea, far from being a restriction, will be an inspiring starting point for them.”

Norman wrote the following note for Release:

Release is a 20-minute fantasy for piano and orchestra. It began, at the behest of Emanuel Ax, as an exploration of two melodic fragments, F-A-E (frei aber einsam, free but lonely) and F-A-F (frei aber froh, free but happy), that were significant to Johannes Brahms. From there it developed into an extended rumination on the ideas of freedom and solitude, a dream-like journey inspired by the creative, conflicted, lonely spirit of Brahms and the ever-present tensions in his (and my) life and music between spontaneity and control, sentiment and structure, indulgence and restraint.

“Like many of its forebears in the long tradition of keyboard fantasies, Release is intended to sound as if it is being made up on the spot, a single meandering but unbroken thread of thought spun out by the pianist from beginning to end. The piece follows a simple scenario: the pianist – perhaps a solitary, Brahms-like figure – sits down at the keyboard and slowly begins to improvise. At first the sounds exist only in the pianist’s mind, but little by little they become real to the rest of us. The pianist very gradually imagines an orchestra into existence, and over the course of many minutes that imaginary orchestra assumes its own voice and identity, transforming from a shadow, a resonance, an echo of the piano into a powerful and distinct musical entity that threatens, at the work’s climax, to swallow up the pianist. The piece ends with a coda in which the pianist freely meditates on the F-A-F motive and the orchestra, player by player, is released into a world of free, uncoordinated playing.

“This piece is dedicated to my teacher, mentor, and friend Martha Ashleigh, who introduced me to the craft of Johannes Brahms and taught me the musical art of tension and release, and to Emanuel Ax, whose generous spirit and expansive mind gave life to every single note.”