My first employment as a young musician in the 1970s was as pianist with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, both as casual rank-and-file musician and occasional soloist. Relocating to the east coast for a decade or so, it was a thrill to return west in 1988 as composer (and unexpected rehearsal conductor!) of one of the orchestra’s “Bicentennial” ventures, the ballet Night of the Full Moon with WA Ballet. My Sixth Symphony (Choral Symphony) was commissioned by my old high school, Guildford Grammar School (Perth), and premiered by WASO in 1996.
Composer Carl Vine. Photo © Keith Saunders
Since then WASO has emerged as my most consistent supporter, commissioning the orchestral fanfare V (2002), the Seventh Symphony (2007) and Concerto for Orchestra (2014). This new work, Implacable Gifts (Concerto for Two Pianos) is therefore a complete homecoming, and like the 2014 concerto was sponsored by the generous philanthropist Geoff Stearn. As the project gathered momentum the Tasmanian Symphony joined as co-commissioner, and they will present the Hobart premiere a week after the first performances in Perth.
As I heard it, the idea of a concerto for two pianos arose from Geoff hearing the wonderful pianist Kathryn Stott perform with the orchestra, and the idea of “something different” was concocted by Geoff and the orchestra, bouncing off the long musical partnership between Kathryn and my old friend Piers Lane.
The provenance of Implacable Gifts is intriguing. The principle of a concerto with a single soloist is well understood: the soloist is a hero assisted, and sometimes challenged, by the orchestra. But what is the rationale for two heroes? Are they at war, competing, collaborating, or just chatting? While wondering how to reconcile these options, I was assailed by a stream of musical ideas perfect for two pianos but which didn’t conform to a wider architectural scheme. The ideas were so persistent they simply demanded inclusion, leaving me to find a binding principle later. It brought to mind The arrival of implacable gifts, the 1985 painting by Australian surrealist James Gleeson in which disparate dazzling images are woven into a roiling sea of intrigue. Gleeson spoke of gifts dropping from the sky, things we long for but which on arrival became unavoidable, and not always completely welcome.
The first movement, Irresistible Urges, is a collection of the original sonic images that were the inescapable, implacable gifts that beset me. The middle two emerged with distinctly narrative characteristics, and so became Folk Story and Fairytale, the latter becoming increasingly fanciful. Since music contains neither verbs nor nouns, I can’t tell exactly what the stories are, and invite the listener to imagine their own. The final movement, Inevitable Conclusion, returns to the ineluctable and inexorable, motifs that lead to the unpreventable end of the music.