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The Concerto (Part 2)

The 20thC was a time of experimentation, where composers pushed the traditional boundaries of the concerto, exploring new forms, techniques, and sounds. It was also the era that the saw the beginnings of recognition of the importance and brilliance of many women composers (though there is still much work to be done!). Composers such as Nadia Boulanger became recognized as the most influential compositional teacher of the 1900s. Florence Price has started to enter the repertoire of many performers and organizations, though sadly too late for her to see, and composers like Unsuk Chin continue to write music that reflects the variety found in our world today.

Though Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979) was perhaps the greatest compositional teacher of the twentieth century (her students include a 'Who's Who' of composers, including Grazyna Bacewicz, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla, Philip Glass, and Quincy Jones), her own compositions deserve much more praise. Though she often doubted her own compositional prowess, often remarking that it was her sister Lili Boulanger who had all of the talent, her own pedigree is impressive—she studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire with Gabriel Fauré.

Her Fantaisie variée pour piano et orchestre, written in 1912 and dedicated to the pianist Raoul Pugno, is a brilliant set of loose variations, as difficult compositionally as it is to play. Stylistically similar to Boulanger's teachers and contemporaries, it is a highly contrapuntal piece, reflective of the importance of counterpoint seen in her teaching.

Luckily for all music lovers, Florence Price (1887–1953) is gradually being rediscovered and performed with regularity, partially due to a discovery of her manuscripts in 2009 and partially to a long overdue recognition of her skill. During her lifetime, Price had mixed success, with her career too often overshadowed by racism and sexism. Upon beginning her studies at the New England Conservatory, her mother told her to pretend to be Mexican rather than African American in an attempt to avoid racist attitudes. After brief stints teaching in Arkansas and Georgia, Price moved to Chicago in an attempt to avoid the racism all too common in the Deep South.

She did manage to have some success in Chicago. She became the first women African-American composer to be performed by a major symphony orchestra, and premiered her own Piano Concerto in One Movement in 1934 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This Neo-romantic piece draws on her heritage, with several melodies based on African-American folk songs.

South Korean composer Unsuk Chin (b. 1961) embodies the globalist postmodern style found in the latter half of the twentieth century. Her music draws on influences found all over the world: medieval European chants, composers such as Béla Bartók, Anton Webern, Iannis Xenakis, Claude Debussy, and György Ligeti, electronic music, and Indonesian gamelan. During her career, she has worked with many of the leading interpreters of contemporary music, including Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Berlin Philharmonic, and conductors such as Kent Nagano and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Her Piano Concerto (1996–97), commissioned by the BBC, is partially a deliberate avoidance of the ideals of the Romantic concerto. The emphasis is on texture rather than melody, and each of the four movements is based on a small compositional cell, exploring the idea of evolution rather than compositional manipulation. The result is a beautiful and challenging work, well worth the effort required to perform it.


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