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Interview | "Vasco Mendonça´s new adventure for piano

and orchestra"

Pedro Boléo | Publico, 15.06.18

STEP RIGHT UP can be translated as "gather round", or "come and see", as if summoning the audience for a show. An inviting title to the new piece by Vasco Mendonça,  premiering tonight at the Main Hall of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. Vasco Mendonça is a Portuguese composer with a meteoric career. Gulbenkian Foundation presents him as "a composer who is already an essential voice in Portuguese and European contemporary music". He recently won the Rolex Mentor and Protegé Arts Initiative (with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho), a program that gives young artists the chance to develop new projects, while having their music performed all over the world. Among these projects is the recording of a solo album with orchestral works. Gulbenkian and its artistic director, Risto Nieminen, supported and welcomed the idea, commissioning this piano concerto, and including it in a major concert dedicated to contemporary music  - (...) a partnership with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (...). 

"When I spoke with Risto, I told him I liked the idea of composing a piano concerto, and he approved of it," Mendonça tells us in the foyer of the Gulbenkian Foundation. "It's my first concerto," he says. Then the question arose as to who would be the soloist: "I had seen Roger Muraro playing the Ravel concerto, and I immediately thought about him. Also, he knew Messiaen, and plays his music frequently. I studied with a student of Messiaen [George Benjamin] - there is an interesting genealogy here as well ..." It all worked out, and pianist Muraro accepted the challenge.

 

THE INSIDE OF A CLOCK

 

"I'm a terrible pianist, but I´m very fond of the piano," says VM, dwelling into his aesthetic ideas for SRU: "The concertante format is an enigma - two entities that both are and aren´t together. For me, the orchestra and the piano are precision mechanisms, and the piano is in itself a machine of orchestral nature, by register, scope, volume, dynamic agility, everything. On the other hand, the orchestra is a like a kaleidoscope, and that opens up a sea of possibilities. In a way, one can be seen as extension of the other, and this dramatic idea nourished the form of the piece: expansion, precision and timing." VM seems enthusiastic about this project, and that is clear in rehearsal, as he, score in hand, is clarifying passages and answering questions by the conductor and the orchestra: "There are always small adjustments, clarifications. It is necessary to shape the music, the material, like a potter." Everything needs to be perfectly synchronized, like a clock: rhythmic and dynamic difficulties have to do with precision requirements - if we can make everything fit properly, it´s like seeing the inside of a clock. I think there's poetry in that. " 

For VM, composing a piano concerto doesn´t mean carrying the whole of history of the piano and the concerto. "I´m not that connected to the romantic piano," says the composer. "The history of the instrument, and of the concerto form, is so rich that it can become paralyzing. So I had to think about what kind piano I really wanted, how to best articulate the ideas that interest me for my music. I wanted to be sincere, personal and consistent, without worrying too much about the idea of the concerto. "And this to get to "the dramatic opposition between the piano and the group, where the piano is like a master of ceremonies, a black shape in the middle of the orchestra". In his program notes, the composer explains that each of the three movements searches for "a different balance between the piano and the orchestra, an unstable dramatic relationship between almost equals." Almost...

The title STEP RIGHT UP refers to a typical expression used in countryside circuses, mostly in the US. "It means 'everybody get together', which is an interjection that I find quite beautiful. It relates to street music, which is particularly obvious in the first and last movements, where there is a sort of 'outdoorsy' character to the music. And there's also this idea of people coming together to share a moment. I see music and the arts as a form of empathy, a way of communicating with others."

STEP RIGHT UP will be recorded for future edition on a portrait CD. "I delayed recording a CD under my name, perhaps for a certain modesty in taking that step," he confesses. "But there is also a practical reason: to record an orchestral CD is a homeric task because of the costs, so I am very grateful to Gulbenkian, who has made the orchestra and the venue available for a week. And I was fortunate to have the support of Rolex. So I put the two together, the concerto premiere and the record, which means I´ll be able to do it in the best possible conditions, with an excellent conductor, an excellent orchestra, and an excellent soloist. With technical means to make a solid project."