Music Monday: Archer: Piano Concerto

As Kimberly Archer (b 1973) notes in her program note for today's piece, composing a piano concerto is “one of those nearly obligatory ‘composer benchmarks’” that almost all of us wind up tackling at some point or other in our careers. To be sure, there are times where this kind of expectation can feel stifling — most of us want to be individuals, not cookie-cutouts — but by the same token, seeing how a new person works in a familiar genre can be a quick and powerful way to get a handle on what they're about. The sheer number of pre-existing piano concerti gives a rich field for comparison without having to dive into the treacherous waters of comparing radically different kinds of works. Here's a form with a long and storied tradition; let's see what you make from it!

Raised in the town of Mendota IL, Archer is very much a product of the contemporary American conservatory system, having earned degrees from Syracuse, FSU, and the University of Texas at Austin. Her primary instrument is the euphonium, and thus it is hardly surprising that she has an affinity for writing for wind band — her composition teachers have included some of the giants of that repertoire, most notably David Maslanka and Donald Grantham. Her works for that ensemble have been warmly received, and she is regularly commissioned by giants in the field. She currently teaches at Southern Illinois University, and has published a book written from the perspective of her dog [Amazon] to help raise money for the Humane Society.

Cryptic arpeggios in the piano usher in the first movement, soon attracting a mournful line on the solo cello. The presence of that instrument in the midst of a work for piano and winds is rather unusual, but when she was writing the theme in question, she couldn't hear any other timbre, and there are a few precedents in the literature. (She was also, by her own admission, influenced by the soundtrack to Lost, as well as the commissioner's sense that the cello is “the embodiment of loneliness”.) As the movement unfolds, the texture thickens and becomes richer, with mallet percussion expanding the piano's timbres and the brass sneaking in for a rich, if abortive, chorale. After a second pass thru the opening material, the music begins to flow more freely, with fluttering textures running quietly yet persistently in the background. These gradually gain in prominence until they burst forth in a percussive whirl that leaves the piano eddying and unsure. A resurgence from the brass ensues, with percussion and woodwinds swirling around in a dark tumult. After a blaring, discordant climax rife with wailing trombones, the shrapnel slowly settles back into the pensive mood of the opening. It's not a perfect restoration of calm, however, as various melodic and motivic fragments continue to drift and settle, like figures half-remembered in a dream.

Heavy bras rumblings kick off the brief second movement, a relentless moto perpetuo that gives the soloist room to show off their virtuosic side, tho there are plenty of fireworks from the rest of the ensemble as well before the scampering lines dart out of existence. A saxophone seems to take the place of the cello in the tender third movement, which has the air of an extended jazz ballad about it. Even the addition of a snare drum does little to tighten the lax and easy-going mood, with strict rhythm very much suspended. Eventually the figurations pile up enough to ease the piano into a moody climax, which soon warms into an escapist patch which seems transcendently light and open in contrast to what has come before. The surprising genuineness of this outpouring seems to be too draining, tho, and the music ebbs back into a moody silence.

Ecstatic descending figures open the finale, but something soon goes wrong, and baleful brass chords take over, spurring on a dance of relentless malevolence. After a moment of exhaustion, the piano tries to bring back the radiance of the opening, but to no avail, and a dark tranquility takes hold of the piece just in time for the cello to re-emerge after a long dormancy. This is music of high melancholy, but there is a tenderness to it as well, a tenderness that is tragically extinguished with the return of the frenetic dance. Hard-edged, glittering percussion and snarling brass push the music ever forward, until crashing into the last double bar.