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Vivian Fine, Concertante for Piano and Orchestra

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert Sounds of the American Century, which will be performed on January 25, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 28, 1913, in Chicago, Illinois
Died March 20, 2000, in Bennington, Vermont
Composed in 1943–44
Premiered in 1944
Performance Time: Approximately 17 minutes

Vivian Fine’s multifaceted output as a composer included vocal, chamber, orchestral, and theater works. Fine was also a highly regarded pianist, and her Concertante reflects her deep attachment to the keyboard. The work is readily connected to neoclassicism—a term that suggests a strong interest in forms and styles of the baroque and classical periods. A number of significant twentieth-century musical figures were associated with neoclassicism, including Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. Both Copland and Stravinsky wrote piano concertos, but Fine’s term “concertante” suggests something subtly different: it points to the work’s heritage in compositions that featured multiple soloists. In Fine’s piece, the piano is obviously the highlighted soloist, complete with a cadenza in the second (and final) movement. But the title “concertante” invites us to hear the piano and orchestra as existing on a more equal footing than they might in a typical classical or romantic concerto. In fact, Fine said that the work was “modeled after the concerti grossi” of baroque composers. Following the spirit of such works, Fine’s Concertante eschews extended passages for the soloist in favor of a more extensive interplay among instrumental forces.

For Fine, its heritage in baroque music meant that the musical language of the Concertante was tonal—“deliberately” so, as Fine said, “while most of my other pieces, while not atonal, are freely atonal and freely tonal at the same time.” The Concertante begins with a study of contrasts: forceful, declamatory orchestral declarations yield to songlike piano passages. This alternation quickly gives way to a more fluid interaction between soloist and orchestra, but the basic sense of division—sometimes jarring and sudden—between sweeping and delicate melodies, on the one hand, and gritty, even strident passages, on the other, characterize the wide-ranging and dramatic opening movement. A faster and more playful second movement rounds out the work. Here, rhythmic energy and verve suggest a swirling dance between piano and orchestra. One highlight, though, is a brief, tender woodwind passage that temporarily interrupts the movement’s defining buoyancy. A lively piano cadenza flows into a jovial conclusion for piano and orchestra.

Matthew Mugmon is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Arizona.