By C. J. Gianakaris
KALAMAZOO, Mich. — You’ve polished three Oscars to a bright glow, earned for hit film scores. You’ve achieved myriad nominations and wins for Emmys, Golden Globes, Grammys and BAFTAs. And you have 200 popular musical compositions emblazoned with your name. So, what’s left to do musically?
If you are Michel Legrand, you choose to launch another musical enterprise: How about writing a bona fide piano concerto?
That is exactly what Legrand, at age 84, has done. Moreover, he performed the piano part for its world premiere on May 14, at the 2016 Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. The occasion was the festival finale that capped more than two weeks of high level musical celebration.
A circuitous path led to Legrand’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Peter H. Gistelinck, executive director of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra and longtime friend, had urged Legrand to compose a large orchestral work for the KSO. But Legrand expressed a desire for writing — and performing — a piano concerto instead.
Gilmore director Daniel Gustin joined the discussions, which led to a joint KSO-Gilmore commission and a Legrand residency at the 2016 festival, where the new work was introduced. Legrand was also spotlighted at Gilmore Jazz Club, joined by a small ensemble, for some impressive jazz.
Chenery Auditorium in Kalamazoo, the venue for Legrand’s new concerto, was recently renovated into a first-rate hall for music. Attractive in décor and offering stunning acoustics, Chenery seats just over 1,500. Sight lines are very good – all important features for Legrand’s performance. The work requires enormous agility and sustained strength, and watching him play was a pleasure unto itself.
The opening of the three-movement concerto, marked Presto, was both fast and percussive. Legrand used repeated arpeggiated clusters to move systematically up and down the keyboard. This he did with counterbalancing orchestral sounds swirling around his musical lines. His notes remained unerringly accented, with staccatos dominating the final tones of the broken chords.
The result was reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s eclectic music, yet insistently Legrand’s — with his signature “dual tones of contrasting arpeggiated chords based on differing tonic keys. The resulting harmonics do not exactly clash but create unsettled tonalities, with no single tonic key dominating. The overall effect is exhilarating.
Legrand showed himself a masterful pianist whose fingers moved swiftly and accurately. The momentum of the musical line took on a briskly swaying style. The basic texture of the music bristled with steady staccato punctuation. A clearly discernible melodic line was not a factor; color and rhythm commanded greater attention.
Conductor Raymond Harvey, music director of the Kalamazoo Symphony, kept the orchestra reasonably synched to Legrand’s vigorous playing, though their musical lines were not usually closely mated in the scores. Interesting syncopation resulted from soloist contrasted to orchestra.
Repeated sweeps of broken chords, ascending and descending, pushed the movement forward. Imaginative blending of non-stop sound generated hypnotic aural colors. The composer’s wide-ranging experience writing atypical sound combinations and textures was readily evident, and the movement concluded with a triangle note.
The middle movement, true to its title, Largo, introduced a calmness in which legato playing by Legrand soothed the percussive musical landscape. Throughout the three movements, Legrand played with a secure touch. His tempi wonderfully matched those of the orchestra, in part a testament to conductor Harvey’s discipline.
The pianist’s deep involvement with the music here, more than anywhere else in the concerto, indicated the serious bent of the work. The thoughtfulness of this section left a lasting impression.
Speed again dominated in the final movement. Legrand never flagged, sustaining the requisite finger control and crispness. Legrand’s brilliance in orchestral scoring was here prominently on display, notably his evocative use of percussion, especially wood blocks, triangle and xylophone. As the concerto approached its conclusion, Legrand the keyboard wizard provided a musical exhibition of fireworks with rapid arpeggios cascading down the length of the keyboard. Those passages alternated with note-perfect chromatic runs upward. A thunderous finale of crashing chords was matched by the full orchestra.
Legrand’s tour de force was equally weighted by the remainder of the program. The Kalamazoo Symphony began the evening with an able and dramatic rendition of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2. And Rafal Blechacz, the 2014 Gilmore Artist, followed with an elegant and articulate Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, a performance casat in an aura of Mozartian classicism.
C. J. Gianakaris, professor emeritus of English and Theatre at Western Michigan University, co-founded and for 25 years co-edited the quarterly Comparative Drama. He has reviewed music and theater in Kalamazoo for over 30 years.