World Premiere: 2008 Gilmore Young Artist Rachel Naomi Kudo commissions work by Marc-André Hamelin
February 19, 2021
This Sunday at 4 PM ET is the world premiere of 2008 Gilmore Young Artist Rachel Naomi Kudo’s commission by composer Marc-André Hamelin, Suite à l’ancienne (Suite in the old style). Both Kudo and Hamelin were kind enough to speak to us about this momentous commission — here’s what they had to say!
How did you two become acquainted?
Marc-André Hamelin: I first heard Rachel play at the 2017 Cliburn competition. I was one of the jurors, and I had also written the compulsory work, the short Toccata on L’homme armé. I remember she had played my piece exceptionally well, so later in the competition when she approached me with the idea of a commission, I was very happy to accept. I knew I would be in good hands!
What is it about Hamelin’s work that led you to commission a piece from him?
Rachel Naomi Kudo: I first played his music through his commission work for the 2017 Cliburn Competition, Toccata on “L’homme armé. I fell in love with the piece, which was compact, memorable, and highly instilled with expressive and technical challenges. I admire many things about his artistry and compositions, but I especially venerated his poetic virtuosity. I thought to myself: I wonder if he would accept a commission! I had long been searching for a composer for my funding from the Gilmore Young Artist Award. I knew if Marc would accept, the combination of his brilliant mind and complete ease and mastery at the instrument would produce another phenomenal and original work and be a notable addition to the piano literature.
Did you write the piece with Rachel in mind, or was there a particular creative idea you were following that was independent of her?
Marc-André Hamelin: We don’t know each other well, so I wrote the piece solely based on my memory of Rachel’s playing, while staying true to myself and my musical language. I just knew that she would be able to handle something ‘meaty’ and pianistically rich, though I was careful not to go overboard!
Tell us a little about the process: did you hear bits of the piece as a “work-in-progress”, or did Hamelin present you with the finished work only when he felt it was completed?
Rachel Naomi Kudo: I didn’t hear any parts of it while the work was in progress! Marc kept it a mystery and updated me when he was near completion. I received the manuscript of the whole work in mid-May 2020 and a typeset score in mid-October. (I misspoke in the Q&A when I said I received the typeset in September.) Marc also sent me a recording of him playing two of the movements, which was tremendously helpful and fascinating at the same time. It reaffirmed the difficulty and complexity of music notation as a form and means of recording one’s ideas and communicating them to an interpreter. Until then, we had exchanged emails for clarification, deciphering the notes, expressive meanings, specifications of pedaling, etc. After listening to the recording, his playing greatly illuminated the actual essence and significance of his intentions. By this, I mean all of the abstract which are problematic to transmit through the black-and-white ink on paper, such as the sense of phrasing, timings, breaths, pauses, effects, etc. You can play the notes, but how can one convey all which lies between the notes and between the bar lines?
I also found that I carried a difference when working from the typeset score versus the manuscript. Although the typeset helped considerably accelerate the learning process, I later found the original handwriting more creatively inspiring and more beautiful. I wondered why publishers don’t offer editions where you can have a side-by-side comparison of both manuscript and typesetting. It seems that it would encourage and inspire whoever wants to learn that particular piece to become closer to the work’s origins.
Could you tell us some of your thoughts about the work?
Marc-André Hamelin: My suite is directly derived from the Baroque models of the various works in the genre by Bach and Handel, in that the general forms are very similar. Beyond that, even though the language remains completely tonal (in A major/minor in this case) the harmony is much more involved, more chromatic.
Rachel Naomi Kudo: After I requested a piece inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach, Marc took the form of a Baroque suite. Thus the piece is in six movements, and there is a natural flow within the structure and in paying homage to the “old style.” Written in the key of A major, I found each movement’s distinct character to be absorbing and captivating.
The opening Préambule commands your attention, akin to Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy BWV 903. As classical musicians, we must be attuned to what is indicated in the score. It was liberating that Marc asked this whole movement to be free, improvisatory, and anything but metrical. It’s an impressive opening with a lot of energy, rhythm, and drive. The movement uses the entire range of the keyboard to its limit, often marked brilliantly, and in two or three fortes.
The Allemande is highly contrasting, suddenly in a softer world, without agitation and with delicate and loving harmonies. The third movement, Courante, is fiendishly difficult! Constant sixteenth notes begin running in the right hand and briefly pass to the left hand in the development, always with rhythmic accompaniment that sometimes crosses over the hands. It again covers the full range of the keyboard. The great challenge is to play the sixteenth notes lightly and playfully, with a discreet yet articulate and present accompaniment. Marc asks to play softly, sometimes without any crescendi, even when the direction of the material changes. It’s a challenge when, especially with momentum, one might naturally want to become louder in such passages. Without any slowing down, the end of the movement is also marked triple pianissimo and seemingly vanishes into thin air. It’s an incredibly effective movement.
At the heart of the suite is Air avec agréments, which is basically a Sarabande, but the title is a refreshing change as a way to point out the rather extreme amount of ornamentation. This is the only movement which mostly stays in the upper half of the keyboard, and it is incredibly delicate and hypnotizing. The following Gavotte and Musette are a highly contrasting pair: a sly, sneaky, and discreet Gavotte in A minor, characterized by rhythmic spice and jaunty hand-crossing intervals, which sandwiches a pearlescent Musette in A major, where the left hand drones in open intervals in the bass and the right hand invents overhead in coloristic and chromatic wisps. The final Gigue is spirited, brilliant, and humorous. Marc indicates at one point: “Woah, this floor’s too slippery – let’s go jig somewhere else.” It fittingly brings the suite to a grand conclusion!
After you premiere the piece for The Gilmore, where else will you perform it?
Rachel Naomi Kudo: At the moment, I don’t have plans to perform it, but I certainly hope to share it with live audiences in person!
Thank you to Marc for writing such an excellent piece for me, and thank you to The Gilmore for encouraging their Young Artists to be active participants in working with living composers. Bringing new music to life in our communities and concert halls is essential and indispensable.
A big thank you to Ms. Kudo and Mr. Hamelin for their candor! Make sure to tune in for the world premiere of the commission on Sunday at 4 PM ET — you can get your ticket here.