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Duet

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: George Benjamin
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Oliver Knussen, conductor / Peter Serkin, piano, plays Messiaen & Benjamin Nov. 3 - 5, 2011
© Thomas May

After retiring from his enormously influential position teaching at the Paris Conservatory, Messiaen recalled that "my favorite student" had been George Benjamin (born 1960). A native of London who was only 16 when the French master took him under his wing as his last private pupil, Benjamin-already highly accomplished as a pianist and composer-even prompted comparison with another famous prodigy: Messiaen declared him to be "as talented as the young Mozart is reputed to have been." For his part, Benjamin describes Messiaen as "a great force of inspiration and a wonderfully enthusiastic and generous teacher" who managed "to liberate the imaginations of his students." A host of other contemporary composers-Alexander Goehr, Tristan Murail, Pierre Boulez, and Oliver Knussen among them-also left a mark. Benjamin allies a keen ear for timbre and harmonic coloration with attention to what he calls "the narrative and structural element" through which a composition is unified. The result is a Ravel-like precision and perfectionism that have kept Benjamin's catalogue lean and wondrously unpredictable.

This is a composer who takes nothing for granted when embarking on a new project. Duet is a perfect example. The prospect of writing a concerto for his own instrument had long appealed to Benjamin. Indeed, another pivotal outcome of his early Paris days was the enduring friendship he struck up with fellow student Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who, like Benjamin, studied piano with Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loriod. After writing two solo pieces and an early score featuring electronics and ensemble for Aimard, Benjamin was finally spurred to take up the challenge of a piano concerto when he was singled out by the Roche Commissions in 2008. This highly prestigious biennial program calls for a new orchestral work to be premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra during the Lucerne Festival's summer concert series. Yet Benjamin's finely tuned feeling for texture and balance caused him to question the most basic assumptions about the piano concerto as a genre. In an interview with British music critic Tom Service about the commission, the composer explained how he found the model of the romantic 19th-century concerto (starting with Beethoven's Emperor) to pose a profound acoustical problem, since it ignored the inherent physical difference in the sound worlds manifested by the piano and the orchestra. The "heroic" ploy of using the keyboard to double "exactly what the orchestra is doing" led to "a monstrous deformation of reality, the reality of sound, and the reality of hearing."

Through a close study of the literature, Benjamin found admirable possible solutions to the problem in the concertos of Mozart as well in Messiaen's writing for piano and orchestra and other contemporary works such as the Piano Concerto of György Ligeti. His own alternative was to omit violins from his orchestration (precisely the instruments which underline the singing, sustained legato character that is so incompatible with the piano) and to make strategic use of harp, pizzicato scoring, and tuned percussion-an array of quasi-pianistic sounds, in other words. The aim was "to cross the divide between the soloist and the orchestra by finding compatible areas between them, specifically by dividing the piano into a few distinct registers with timbral equivalents in the orchestra." Benjamin's choice of the title Duet (which is dedicated to Aimard) in place of the generic "piano concerto" reaffirms this essential characteristic of an interchange between two  distinct entities-with the implication of arriving at some sort of harmonious convergence.

Even so, Benjamin clarifies, Duet sustains much of its narrative momentum and drama from the image of the piano as "an alien figure in the orchestral landscape [which] often treads an independent path through instrumental textures that can seem intentionally oblivious of it." For example, the soloist plays an "obstinate and unchanging" melody" at the start, remaining confined to the bass for nearly the first half of the piece: "wandering-like a stranger-across a constantly shifting sequence of orchestral backdrops." Intricately engineered mutations of thematic and rhythmic ideas, along with the composer's signature attention to textural detail, give the music a sense of highly condensed development across its single, quarter-hour span.