“An American Episode: Judith L. Zaimont’s Piano Concerto”
a musical review by the Antiharpist (copyright 2009)
40 minutes before a concert by the Peabody Wind Ensemble, I crept throughout the gathering musicians and audience members, asking around to see whether or not attendees were aware of the world premiere that evening--and more importantly, what the players actually thought of it. There were supposedly less than 200 tickets sold for the concert according to the box office, although the hall looked full to the untrained eye. The attendees were mostly family members of the musicians. And the players thought the piece was “pretty good”, and “active”, although some of them seemed tight-lipped and nervous. Tonight, the PWE, as called in short, would premiere “Solar Traveller”, a concerto in three movements for piano and wind orchestra by Judith Lang Zaimont. The pianist of the evening was young and talented Timothy Hoft, playing on a Steinway. Mrs. Zaimont did, in fact, attend. Zaimont has been called, by Fanfare magazine, a composer that is “capable of a broad audience appeal.” This seems to be true considering the broad array of material that can be excavated from this piece alone.
A background of Zaimont should be necessary to understand the influences in her music, but in this case it is not largely helpful. Born in 1945, her music seems to span anything from ragtime to Bernstein to Stravinsky (at least, in her “Rite of Spring” like passages…). But curiously, her website and most of her interviews do not list any of her compositional teachers or influences, rather, it emphasizes the fact that she is inspired at random times, even in her sleep. However, on a separate page (in very-hard-to-find print,) it states that she studied with the composition teachers at CUNY, including Perle, Weisgall, and Kraft; and later, Andre Jolivet in Paris. She did study piano, however, with Mme. Lhevinne at the Julliard School when she was young. Judging by the music of Kraft and Perle, her education was largely atonal, with some elements of (still atonal, yet,) film-like music from Weisgall. Jolivet’s music was also dissonant, so in some ways it is odd that although her professional education largely involved atonal composers, somehow, her sound today is so unique--and while not necessarily tonal--not necessarily dissonant, either.
When asked directly what her influences were, she replied with: “I am a pianist, as you probably could tell from listening.“ I could, I said. “I like pieces with lots of stuff in it,” she concluded as a woman chortled beside her. There was certainly a lot of stuff in her music. She has also been quoted as saying: “The whole world is music,” and this is also obvious from hearing her work.
Solar Traveller, written this year, is “absolute music” according to the program notes. It is meant to be largely coloristic, “large form”, and of course, a comprehensive work for the piano. The spoken introduction to the piece by the conductor contained a telling sentence: “Once you start a performance, you are along for the ride, and this is very much true for this piece.“ The first movement, called “Outward Bound”, is supposed to contain two themes, one heroic, one moody. But in hearing, it is harder to distinguish the themes than originally suggested by the program notes. (And the program notes read like an Augusta Thomas work--largely focused on nature and spacial ideals.) Two harps, percussion, and the piano open with the lighter woodwinds in upward, sweeping motions. Large amounts of glissandi give us the impression of space or moving upward (highly appropriate considering the title). And yet as soon as the rest of the woodwinds and the brass enter, the piano is completely drowned out. For the first time that evening, but not the last, I was disappointed by the balance, and I was unable to discern whether it was the acoustics in the concert hall, or just poor orchestration and dynamic balance on the part of Mrs. Zaimont. (Although considering her lengthy list of works, somehow I doubt the latter....) Flourishes, modulations, and pulsating tonguing motions in the winds permeate this movement. Then the piano is solo (and heard!) with moody and beautiful passages. Influences of jazz and Stravinsky seemed apparent in the harmonic language, although there was Debussy-ian sweetness to the lilting right hand motions.
Melodies were hard to distinguish in all of the movements. There were some beautiful moments where the harmonies and the orchestra really opened up from a soft dynamic into a full, lush, movie-music-like sound that caused audience members to sigh, but the ability to actually recall anything from the performance has left me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Bernstein, at least in his “Age of Anxiety” symphony, and Copland-like rhythmic choices seemed to also feature a lot throughout the piece, whether intentional or not. There were also Asian-like influences, most likely fourths that I kept hearing, in the woodwinds. The first movement ended very suddenly and brashly, and I felt myself a little taken aback, or at least startled. There are many pieces that end this way, but for some reason it bothered me.
The second movement, entitled “Nocturne (Lunar)”, was very introspective and dissonant, yet chilling on the piano. There was then an entrance in the percussion that seemed to directly quote the famous downbeats of Rite of Spring in the accompanying orchestra and percussion parts. A beautiful flute and piano duet occur, although it was, again, not a memorable melody. It did serve a purpose though, and the sudden contrast with the percussion startled all listeners. For the second time in the evening, although the first I commented upon it--there was a strange entrance in the cymbals. This proceeded to happen throughout the work. I am not sure if it was a mistake on the player’s part, just entering at the wrong time, or if it was genuinely written that way, but oftentimes the entrance of the percussionists seemed contrived and forced, and often very jarring, and not in a good way. I do not mind if composers shock or scare in a piece, but in this case it seemed like it would always happen when something else was going on, and it was chaos trying to decide what to listen to--the marching-band like percussion, or the actual piece occurring along with it. Regardless, the second movement was a movement of contrasts, and yes, a Scherzo as suggested in the program notes.
The third movement was largely percussive--and ruined by the triangle. “Ad astra per aspera”, which means: “to the stars through hardships”, begins with what might have been a really intense percussion part--and then a triangle comes in and jars the listener, again, not in a good way. It seemed out of place and completely unnecessary. There are John Adam’s-like shifts in quick motions; bangs and creaks throughout the orchestra. The piano part in this is also a little reminiscent of the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 in its contrasting motions. A strange waltz starts, and is interrupted. Rim clicks penetrate the fabric of the orchestra, and then the flute and piano fight over dominance in the high register. The “heroic” theme reenters and I am again disappointed when the piano is drowned out by the ensemble. The ending is very typically “American” old-fashioned movie like, with two chords resembling the end of Stravinsky’s “Symphony in three Movements”.
When the audience clapped at the end, there was not a standing ovation even though the composer was brought to the front, though the clapping lasted a long time. I think there was a general air of strangled satisfaction: the piece was quite good, but there were elements that just didn’t sit well. This is not to say the piece was not a success, or should not be performed. The piano part, when it could be distinguished, was virtuosic and lovely, and there were many shining moments throughout the piece. It was certainly made up of a lot of “stuff”, and it is still amazing to this reviewer that a composer without a lot of formal training (according to her biography) could weld together something so intriguing. I would not agree with her that the piece has much in the way of “form” if defined by conventional terms, because I would call it more episodic with repetition; but it did carry weight, and held its own. I would hear it again, if only to answer my questions regarding the cymbal part, and the general dynamic level of the orchestra drowning out the soloist. Mrs. Zaimont was successful in creating a work with appeal to many different sources.
 Premiered on Wednesday, Oct. 7th, 2009.