STORY WRITTEN BY JOE BARRON
Aaron Copland wrote his jazz-inspired Piano Concerto in 1926 as a performance vehicle for himself. After premiering the work in Boston, he took it on the road to New York, Los Angeles, even Mexico and Chile, but he never played it Philadelphia, and neither, it appears, did anyone else — until now.
On Jan. 16, nearly 88 years to the day after its Boston debut, the English pianist Peter Donohoe will perform Copland’s concerto at the Kimmel Center, accompanied by Ama Deus Ensemble under the baton of Valentin Radu.
As the ensemble was acquiring the parts for the work, a check by the publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, turned up no previous rentals in the Philadelphia area, giving Donohoe and Ama Deus the right to call their performance the local premiere.
“Well, I was startled when I heard that,” Donohoe said Dec, 22, speaking by phone from the United Kingdom. “I chose it on the basis on the music we’ve played already. Most of it was that kind of jazz-inspired American music. Most of it was Gershwin. Valentin wanted to expand the repertoire.”
Though a youthful work, the concerto was Copland’s last attempt at writing explicitly in a jazz vein. It is not heard as frequently as his later, more populist music, such as “Appalachian Spring,” perhaps because it languishes in the shadow of George Gershwin’s ubiquitous Concerto in F, composed a year earlier. It seems the market isn’t big enough for more than one jazzy American piano concerto.
Comparisons may be inevitable, but the two works are quite different, and each bears the unmistakable personality of its creator. While Gershwin surrounds his Tin Pan Alley melodies with lush harmonies and orchestrations suggested by Rachmaninoff, the Copland is loaded with Stravinskian rhythms that continually shift time signatures, as though the young firebrand were refracting American sunlight through the prism of European modernism.
“I think Copland was very influenced by the Europeans,” Donohoe said. “A slightly harsh side of the harmony is what Copland is interested in. To put it together is a nightmare.”
Still, he said, the musicians of the Ama Deus Ensemble are always up to a fresh challenge.
“Their ability to put together something so hard so quickly is a tribute to their professionalism,” he said. “The whole thing’s incredible fun.”
It is an irony of the classical music scene that it takes an English pianist and a Romanian-born conductor to remind Americans of their own musical heritage. But Donohoe and Radu are both steeped in the music of the States. Radu has been known to play Gershwin at parties, and Donohoe has taken part in many performances of Copland’s music, both as a pianist and as a conductor. When he was younger, he played vibraphone in a small jazz group, although the freedom he felt to improvise on that instrument never carried over to the piano.
“I need a score,” he said. “I need to have the framework completely provided the composer. On the vibraphone I didn’t have that inhibition.”
If he is afraid to cut loose at the keyboard, it is only because he cares more about it — that he regards the piano as something sacred.
“That’s precisely right,” he said. “It feels like it’s almost a transgression.”
Copland was not much of an improviser, either, and, fortunately for Donohoe, he wrote down everything he wanted to hear, including a cadenza designed to sound like it’s being made upon the spot.
“I think if one plays it faithfully, that’s exactly the impression it will give,” Donohoe said. “It sounds remarkably like Valentin improvising at a party.”
The Jan. 16 pops concert will also include works by Gershwin and John Williams.
IF YOU GO
What: Peter Donohoe and the Ama Deus Ensemble, conducted by Valentin Radu, perform the music off Copland, Gershwin and Williams.
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 16
Where: The Perelman Theater, Philadelphia.
Tickets: CONCERT IS SOLD OUT, according to organizers on Jan. 8.
Info.: Call (215) 893-1999 or check www.kimmelcenter.org.
In a email, concert organizers stated: ” … the region’s classical music audience will have another opportunity to hear Peter Donohoe, Valentin Radu and the Ama Deus Ensemble orchestra on Friday, May 15, 2015 at 8:00 p.m. Also to be performed in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, this concert will feature Mr. Donohoe as piano soloist in a tour de force concert entitled The 3 B’s ~ Bach ● Beethoven ● Brahms. That evening, Peter Donohoe will perform three of the greatest piano concertos ever written: Bach’s Piano Concerto in d minor, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, and Beethoven’s famed Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor.” “