Sometimes a musical composition and who performs it have a story that can be as compelling as the actual listening experience. This will be especially true for the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s Saturday concert when pianist Terrence Wilson performs Michael Daugherty’s piano concerto, “Deus ex Machina.”
It all started about 11 years ago when Wilson, a student at Juilliard and a recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant prize, played a concert at a summer music festival in Santa Cruz, Calif.
“I played Daugherty’s piano concerto, ‘Le Tombeau de Liberace,’ ” Wilson said. “Michael was in the audience and we became friends.”
After graduation, Wilson began what became an international performance career and along the way played a few solos with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, where Daugherty was composer-in-residence between 1999 and 2003.
Albany Symphony Orchestra
WHAT: Pianist Terrence Wilson will perform “Dues ex Machina” a piano concerto composed by Michael Daugherty.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
HOW MUCH: $54-$19
MORE INFO: 465-4755, www.albanysymphony.com
Seeing idea through
“Every time I played with Detroit, we’d go out to eat, reminisce and talk about working together,” Wilson said.
In 2004, an orchestra manager with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra suggested Wilson might consider commissioning a composer to write a piano concerto. Because that can be a costly project, Wilson decided to form a consortium of orchestras, including the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
“I sold the idea to four other orchestras [Nashville, Syracuse, Rochester and New Jersey] that I’d played with and then went to Michael and told him I thought this project had legs,” Wilson said.
By then, Daugherty, now 57, had become widely known for his prolific body of work with colorful and complex scores that integrated jazz, rock, American pop, computer and classical music. He’d also received numerous awards and had joined the composition faculty at the University of Michigan School of Music where he’d become a mentor for many young composers.
Quickly on board
Daugherty didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“Terrence can do anything,” Daugherty said. “There’s nothing he can’t do. He has flawless technique.”
The result was “Deus ex Machina,” which Wilson premiered in 2007 with the orchestras from the consortium, after giving the world premiere with Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
“I took a year to write it,” Daugherty said. “I play piano and I wanted to write a piece that a pianist would enjoy playing. The piece shows off what a pianist can do.”
For inspiration, he decided to look at American places and personalities and found the iconic image of its trains, specifically the steam locomotives of the 1950s. That’s where he got the idea for his title.
“These are godlike machines and a piano keyboard is like a train track. So it’s like a machine from which music comes,” he said.
The first movement is Italian futuristic; the second movement depicts Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train; the finale is boogie woogie and linked to the 1950s.
Wilson said his part was very difficult and blended several styles, including having to strum the piano’s strings. Despite its modern sound, there were many hummable moments that were very melodious.
“The first movement is a visceral blast with sonic power and velocity and is one helluva way to get things going. The second is lyrical with ‘Taps’ woven in as a motif that is mournful and stately. The last is infectious and toe tapping,” Wilson said.
He also decided to memorize his part — something that has amazed Daugherty, who said he’d never seen a pianist memorize a part for a world premiere. Wilson said because the part was so hard, it would have been too distracting to play, look at the conductor and at the music. Memorizing it was the only thing to do.
“The part was very hard to memorize, but fortunately Michael and I had conversations as he wrote the piece and sent me what he had as he went along,” Wilson said. “So that gave me a head start.”
Although no arrangements were made to record the work commercially, Nashville always records its live performances for archival purposes. After the premiere with conductor Giancarlo Guerrero (who made his SPAC debut last summer), everyone was so impressed that it was decided to submit the tape to the orchestra’s record label along with a tape of another Daugherty work, the popular “Metropolis Symphony,” Wilson said.
As a side note, the third movement of “Metropolis” was commissioned in 1991 by the Albany Symphony Orchestra.
The disc, “Metropolis Symphony” (Naxos), was nominated for five Grammys for the 53rd annual awards given in 2011: Best Classical Album, Best Engineered Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Best Solo Instrumental Performance with Orchestra. It won three: Best Contemporary Classical Composition, Best Orchestral Performance and Best Engineered Album.
Familiar with ASO
Since “Deus ex Machina” premiered, Wilson has performed the concerto with the Scottish National Orchestra. The ASO performance will be the second time a noncommissioned orchestra will play the piece, he said. Also scheduled on Saturday are works by Copland, Bernstein and Barber.
“It’s nice to have subsequent performances beyond the initial premieres,” Wilson said, adding that this will not be his ASO debut. When he was still at Juilliard, he performed the Khachaturian Piano Concerto with the ASO under music director David Alan Miller. Although he didn’t get the Grammy for best instrumental performance, Wilson said that was alright.
“It’s enough of an honor just to be included,” he said.
And Daugherty will be back for the May 19 concert when the ASO will play his “Rosa Parks Boulevard.”