The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto: Extremity of Sky

About the Work

Melinda Wagner Composer: Melinda Wagner
© Richard Freed

This concerto was composed in 2001 and 2002, created with funds from the Prince Prize for Commissioning Original Work, which was awarded to Melinda Wagner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2000. The intended soloist was Emanuel Ax, who gave the premiere performances in Chicago on May 22, 23, 24 and 27, 2003, with Daniel Barenboim conducting, and who introduces the work into the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

In addition to the solo piano, the score, dedicated to Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, specifies 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, brake drum, snare drum, piccolo snare, bass drum, bongos, tom-toms, crash cymbals, suspended cymbals, wood blocks, tam-tam, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, tambourines, water gong, bell plates, slapstick, bell tree, chimes, push chimes, triangle, crotales, celesta, harp, and strings. Duration, 26 minutes.

Melinda Wagner earned graduate degrees in composition from both the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied with Richard Wernick and George Crumb, and the University of Chicago, where her teachers were Shulamit Ran and Jay Reise. She has since served on the faculty of her Pennsylvania alma mater as well as those of Swarthmore College, Syracuse University and Hunter College, and has lectured at several other universities and conservatories. By 1999, when she received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion, a work commissioned and introduced by the Westchester Philharmonic Orchestra under Paul Lustig Dunkel, she had established her credentials in works commissioned by numerous chamber music organizations, orchestras and foundations, and had been recognized with prestigious awards and fellowships. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned the present work in 2000, had already commissioned and introduced her Falling Angels in 1993, and now a third Chicago commission is scheduled for its premiere next season. This season has seen the premieres of a song-cycle for the soprano Christine Brandes and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, of 57/7 Dash, an overture for percussion and orchestra commissioned by Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops, and of Wick, composed for the New York New Music Ensemble. In addition to her third commission from the Chicago Symphony, Ms. Wagner has received commissions for new works from both the New York Philharmonic (a concerto for that orchestra's principal trombonist Joseph Alessi) and the United States Marine Band.

Before she devoted herself fully to her creative work, Ms. Wagner had been active as a pianist; she expressed herself as being especially happy with the commission for the present work because she had always wanted to compose a piano concerto, in which the solo part would be equal to the orchestra's. What she had shown little interest in doing was writing descriptive or "programmatic" music--but Extremity of Sky, and its very title, came to incorporate a certain level of acknowledgement of an event that changed many lives and set off a number of direct, overt responses in music and verse. Phillip Huscher, in his annotation for the work's Chicago premiere, wrote that

Wagner was immersed in work on the second movement of the concerto when the events of September 11, 2001, disrupted her composing routine as well as daily life in her New Jersey community, a commuter's drive from New York City--from a high ridge in their town, Wagner and her family [her husband the percussionist James Saporito and their two children] could see the smoke rising above Manhattan. Later that autumn, when she ran across the phrase "extremity of the skies" ([in] Act III of King Lear), she realized that it might serve as a title for the work, not because it described the nature of the music itself, but because of the way Shakespeare's image captured the unimaginable atmosphere that year while she was writing the concerto.

The work as a whole, however, was not reshaped as a response to or image of that day's violence or of the atmosphere left in its wake. As noted, Ms. Wagner had outlined the work's structure and was already working on the second movement at that time, and did not revise her overall design to reshape the concerto as an expression of outrage or lamentation. She has in fact stated that she

had to work very hard at not thinking about the enormity of that tragedy while writing (a sure path to writer's block for me). I did not feel capable of expressing such a present and raw thing through such an abstract language. I was also very aware of the privacy of those who were suffering direct loss. I did trust, though, that what was happening in the world, and the intensity of my feelings about that, would somehow come out in the music.

As the work evolved, only one of the four movements came to have any direct relationship to a consequence of the tragic events of September 11 that did touch the composer personally, and it is not specifically indicated in the score, though each movement bears a title indicating its function or general nature:

OPENING, described by the composer in a note of her own for the premiere as being "in large part gestural, serving as an introduction--a kind of anacrusis--to the following movement."

DEPARTURE, "more thematic and developmental."

PRAYER-CHAIN, an adagio that serves as "a kind of collective prayer." Sections of this movement carry such markings as "with aching tenderness" and "more and more intense"; at the movement's end is the inscription, "In memoriam Michael Carroll, Firefighter, September 11, 2001." Michael Carroll, one of Ms. Wagner's New Jersey neighbors, was a member of the New York Fire Department who lost his life attempting to rescue people trapped in the Twin Towers. The composer points out that her "In memoriam" is more in the nature of a personal acknowledgement than a public gesture: in her own words, "My dedication had to do with the fact that my friend, and all of the others, were ever-present in my mind at that time." Once the powerful intensity is spent, the "Prayer-chain" ends with a section headed "Olivia's Music (a little girl's slightly out-of-tune music box)," which Ms. Wagner advises "was written with my daughter Olivia and her friend Olivia Carroll in mind."

VARIED RETURN: "Composing a ‘return' proved to be a most interesting and challenging process. One cannot simply tack on previously heard music; it has to be made to work dramatically and to convey some sense of acquired maturity, and at the same time, closure" The opening of this final movement is headed "Playful," and in the middle part there is a passage marked "Very blustery and self-important." There is abundant vitality, there is humor, and the end is quiet but warm-hearted and confidently affirmative.