I find the idea of a concerto somewhat suspect. Why create a piece of such clear hierarchy, where the listener focuses on one (or in some instances, two or three) characters? Is it a ritual? Is it a glorification of physical virtuosity? Or is it simply a way to explore the multiplicity of musical consciousness?
Valid as these reasons may be, what interests me most about the concerto is its ability to reflect social structures – like the harpsichord in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, a humble servant who usurps the supremacy of the orchestra with a florid, extended cadenza – a moment that could be understood as a musical “storming of the Bastille”. Or the violin in Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, whose rhapsodic figurations, refusing to bend to the hegemony of the orchestra, suggest Britten’s pacifism as manifest through sound.
Samuel Adams. Photo © Todd Rosenberg
The Baroque concerto grosso is a strange bird, an exception to the one versus many archetype. This form reflects cooperation and flexibility – a kind of “we’re all in this together” attitude. The concertino (a small group of soloists) and the ripieno (everyone else) engage in a Socratic dialogue of mutual support and reciprocity. There are no heroes, and power is distributed more equitably. The musical hierarchy is constantly in flux.
Although my new work for the Australian Chamber Orchestra recasts the traditional concerto grosso in a 21st-century light, its relationships are more structural than superficial. There are no allusions to Bach, Corelli or Handel, and few elements from the historical form remain. There is no continuo, no fancy ornamentation, no renegade harpsichord solos. What I did keep, however, is the concept of “role fluidity”.
As the single-movement work unfolds, soloistic gestures begin to emerge from the ensemble, sometimes individually and sometimes alongside two, three or four other instruments. In some moments, the music is carried by a single player. In others, the whole ensemble crests in unison. But at no point in the work does an antagonism emerge; the elements of the piece could not succeed without one another.
I heard the Australian Chamber Orchestra back in 2013 in my hometown of Berkeley, California, and was immediately captivated by its sound. It was as if the world’s greatest string quartet had put on an Iron Man suit, amplifying the precision and physicality of a small chamber ensemble to a group of 17 musicians. It was a hair-raising experience, and I’m honoured to dedicate my new work to this wonderful group.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra will premiere Samuel Adams’ Movements (for us and them) at Llewellyn Hall, Canberra on June 23, before touring to Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney until July 4