Sinfonia concertante for organ and orchestra (U.S. Premiere, LA Phil commission with generous support from the Lenore S. and Bernard A. Greenberg Fund)
About this Piece
I started developing material for the Sinfonia concertante in the lockdown spring of 2020. It took me a while to get over the first, obvious hurdle: the organ can cover the entire scope of a symphony orchestra in every way. It has the same or wider pitch, dynamics, and colour ranges. How does one write a piece for essentially two orchestras without creating redundancy issues?
After a lot of thinking and at times agonising, I had the Columbus’ egg moment: why not just write the music, and orchestrate it for those two rich and complex instruments, the organ and the orchestra?
I decided to call the composition Sinfonia concertante instead of Concerto, as the function of the organ keeps changing constantly over the course of the 30-minute journey. Sometimes, it plays alone, often as the soloist in the traditional sense, or as a chamber-music partner to wind instruments. A few times, it becomes part of the orchestra as a member of the collective in a supporting role. I cannot think of any other instrument with the same chameleon-like flexibility.
The long history of the organ inspired me to imagine “old” music from a hypothetical world, an alternate universe, still mine but slightly alien. I decided to use old forms, such as the slow, courtly Pavane in the first movement. There is only one actual quote in the Sinfonia Concertante: the famous ars antiqua four-part Organa, “Viderunt omnes” by Pérotin (fl. c. 1200), which I re-harmonised and orchestrated for full orchestra and the solo organ. (I have been a Pérotin fan since my teen years.)
Here’s a short map of the three movements.
Movement 1: Pavane and Drones
- After a dreamy opening section, the solo organ introduces the Pavane, my take on the stately Renaissance court dance. The strings join after a while, the organ decorates their phrase.
- A semitone trill drone sounds throughout the new, more unsettled section where the filigree lines of the organ are sometimes accompanied by the woodwind instruments. The Pavane returns in a different guise in the bassoons and later in the horns. The semitone trill has grown to a whole tone, which in my mind grew into a major dramaturgical moment, a real peripeteia.
- After another filigree solo passage, the Pavane returns suddenly, this time forte, played by the full orchestra. After a massive culmination, the unsettled organ filigree is heard for the last time.
- The dreamy opening music returns, orchestrated very sparingly. The organ plays the melodic line, accompanied by long glissandos of two solo violins. The movement ends in stillness.
Movement 2: Variations and Dirge
- Solo viola and the English horn play a slow, nostalgic melody, accompanied by quiet, calmly ascending and descending lines. Those scales will be returning soon.
- The organ plays the first Cadenza. It begins like an innocuous baroque Siciliano, but grows more frenzied in expression as it progresses.
- A short variation of the up-and-down movement heard in the beginning. This time at breakneck speed.
- The second Cadenza. The Siciliano music is now in the pedal, low and powerful.
- The third variation of the scales: a long Adagio, which culminates when the unisono strings reach the highest point of the melody.
- A Dirge for the organ alone. My mother died during the last stages of the composition process. I decided to write an epilogue in her memory. It doesn’t sound sad, more like a big ship sailing away.
Movement 3: Ghost Montage
- Noisy music inspired by the organ riffs heard in NHL ice hockey games in the USA. Echoes of Beethoven’s Seventh also, I believe.
- Old music from my imagined world, played by woodwinds mostly.
- The organ joins, and we hear a quieter variation of the opening carnival music, this time with pizzicato strings.
- Long solo episode for the organ. The complex chords in the beginning give way to another version of the “old” music.
- The carnival returns, this time intertwined with the “old” music.
- Another long organ solo, which leads to the Pérotin sequence.
- A sudden, loud tutti leads to the first Cadenza. Massive chords over a pedal point on B-natural.
- Another tutti outburst and a second Cadenza, this time a virtuoso moment for the pedal.
- The opening music returns, faster than before. The organ and the orchestra have changed places, the organ plays what the orchestra played earlier, and vice versa. Out of the massive B-flat major chord emerges another, alien chord that ends the entire piece, pianissimo. Another ghost.
—Esa-Pekka Salonen, Katowice, January 11, 2023