Gunther Schuller : Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards
Among the almost one hundred eighty compositions I have written there isn't a single work for percussion ensemble, small or large. No one had ever asked me to write such a piece. When Frank Epstein asked me a year ago to write him such a work, I jumped at the chance, especially when he told me it would be for his large percussion ensemble at the New England Conservatory with the possibility of a premiere at Tanglewood.
The idea of writing for a lot of percussion with their almost limitless sound and textural possibilities really turned me on. And I can truly say, although I like to think I have occasionally (or even often) been inspired in some of my earlier works over the years, I don't think I was ever so inspired and challenged as in the case of this Grand Concerto.
I wrote the piece in what amounted to about six full days (with numerous interruptions). It seemed as if such a work had been in me for some time, since I decided right away to write for eight percussionists with large setups, i.e., lots of different instruments to hit and bang on, or to coax beautiful soft sounds from. (Percussionists in the last sixty years have learned to play every percussion instrument in God's creation, from obvious things like timpani and snare drum [and dozens of other types of drum] and cymbals and gongs to mallet instruments like vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone.) I also knew right away that, since so many percussion instruments are what we call "non-pitched" instruments, I would have some pitched instruments, thus the choice of (what I have called collectively) three keyboards, including a harp. I don't get along too easily as a composer without pitches, that is, without harmony and melody.
The work is in four movements, played without interruption, in a rather traditional classical format:
I-Slow accelerating to fast
III-Fast, a Scherzo
IV-Introduction (cadenza-like) Allegro (Perpetuum Mobile).
Perhaps the most interesting challenge in writing this work was what one might call "logistics," which one never encounters in orchestral or chamber music. In writing for a large percussion group, with each player performing on anywhere from a dozen instruments to almost thirty, the composer has to keep constant track of what instruments each of the eight players has been assigned, plus making sure that he or she can get to the next instrument (whatever it might be) in time traveling time and to have enough time to tune instruments that require tuning or, conversely, to damp instruments which require that.
Writing this piece was like enjoying a tremendous gourmet feast. Or to put it another way, I felt like a little four-year-old splashing wildly around in a big bathtub with dozens of plastic or rubber toys. (We all remember that, don't we?) My imagination was constantly fired with the excitement of taking all those hundred-instrument sounds, like a chef's ingredients, and mixing, collecting, combining and/or featuring in a seemingly limitless, inexhaustible variety.
...Gunther Schuller’s Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards (2005), is by far the most sonically overwhelming... Piano, celesta and harp are merely the “front men” here for more than 100 percussion instruments of all types, combined in unusual ways and with considerable rhythmic skill...
, infodad.com, 11/08/2011
… Gunther Schuller revealing that he was like a child in a sweet shop when writing his Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards. The outcome was a score of four movements with an octet of performers…the result a fascinating mosaic of tonal colours. Schuller conducts his fascinating mosaic of tonal colours in a benchmark performance.
David Denton, David's Review Corner, 01/06/2011
The festival was fortunate in its masters...and in its world premieres, of which the most remarkable was the Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards by that grand master Gunther Schuller, still going strong at 80. Scored for 11 musicians playing more than 150 instruments, Schuller's three-movement work was entirely serious and thoughtful. He completely passed over the opportunity for novelty or for sheer volume in favor of composing almost meditative music for these extraordinary forces.
Richard Dyer, Boston Globe