SOLO - Turning Variations (2006) Program Note

Turning Variations is a piano concerto based on a solo work that I wrote at the Tanglewood Music Center. The piece is dedicated to Henri Dutilleux on his 90th birthday, and to Christopher Taylor, a great colleague, friend, and inspiration for more than twelve years. 

The work opens with a simple song-hymn in the key of B major. The hymn is followed by a pentatonic echo in the offstage woodwinds, a mirror of the musical duality "East vs. West" which I experienced when returning from studying Lobi gyil (xylophone) music in Ghana. In "Nightmares and Chickens," the first variation, the hymn is pecked out, culminating in a schizoid frenzy of pointillistic clucking, and eventually evaporating into the top registers of the piano and harp. "Kowië at Dawn," the second variation, is a portrait of a small village in Northwest Ghana. It begins with the sound of distant bells (bowed glockenspiel and vibraphone), but soon the town wakes and is drawn into a lively dance, evocative of gyil music. The third variation "Passage," harmonizes the pentatonic theme chromatically, and from brass chords the hymn slowly reemerges in the piano and solo strings, this time tinged with a gospel slant. In the fourth variation, "Carnaval Noir," Latin music mixes with the occasional ragtime twist. The carnival segues into the coda, in which an inverted rendition of the hymn returns in the woodwinds, solo violin, and the top registers of the piano. The pentatonic echo returns in the offstage oboe as the work spirals backwards into a hazy reflection of the opening song. 

Many thanks to Joel Harrison at the American Pianists Association, the Christel Family for engendering the commission, and to copyist Manly Romero, and Richard Lee at Peermusic, who helped prepare and edit the work for publication and performance. 

- Derek Bermel, March 2006

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