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Interview | "The complicated relationship between the

piano and the orchestra, as seen by Vasco Mendonça"


Bernardo Mariano | Diario de Noticias, 15.06.18

The name is unusual, at the least. Vasco Mendonça explains: "It relates to the idea of outdoor music, a gathering of people attending a show. It means something like "Gather round, come and see! ". An interjection addressed to the public, with the piano, in this case, as the master of ceremonies."

This title already expresses the character of STEP RIGHT UP, VM´s first concerto for solo instrument and orchestra, premiering this friday at Gulbenkian. The work is part of the SP-LX partnership, established between the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and will have its Brazilian premiere at the end of November, also with Roger Muraro, but conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero.

Facing the fabulously rich heritage of the piano concerto, Vasco is quite candid: "If I had to take into account the genealogy of the format I was writing for, I probably hadn´t made it past the first bar...". But he nevertheless did his homework first: "Over the course of three months, I listened to a substantial number of contemporary piano concertos - and those with which I felt closer to were obviously the ones that used the piano in way that was closer to my own ideas (...)". He then had to trust in his own instinct: "For me, the advantage of having piano and orchestra in a concertante format is the underlying tension between these two "dramatis personae" - and you can actually create something from it, you´re not starting from scratch. And that is already kind of liberating in itself". And further: "I thought of everything the piano can become, from a sound wall full of romantic pathos to the crystalline clarity of the Classical style. And I prefer to see the piano almost like a music box; a sort of music machine . A 'character' that "allows itself brief moments of lyricism", although these are "exceptions to the essential virile character of this work." He goes so far as to define his creation as "relentless", insofar as,  as he puts it, "it is a really loud piece, quite assertive, and with the character of street music. " 

Within this framework, the 2nd movement "has a more interior, nocturnal character, with a degree of nostalgia in the material, evokes a more traditional role of the instrument". The whole piece ended up adopting a "very traditional" fast-slow-fast structure: "It was clear to me that I had to start in a certain way, and it was also clear that it would have to have a circular nature. For the sake of "contrast in the 2nd movement, I ended up quite naturally with a traditional structure."

We are thus faced with a work in which "two fantastic musical machines - the piano and the orchestra - confront each other, they sometimes communicate, sometimes not; sometimes converge, and sometimes take different paths." A relationship that is governed by "instability and unpredictability", rooted in a certain "strangeness" between the two: "The piano does not really belong to that party taking place on stage, and it's never its own 'orchestra', but it may come to liven up the party in its unique way.

And facing the piano is a massive orchestra: "It is a symphony orchestra, a force I´ve written for before in a number of occasions. (…)" The difference, here, will be in the dimension of the percussion ensemble: "I ´ve always liked to use abundant percussion,  I think it is a way of subverting - or amplifying, if you like - the orchestral vocabulary; it´s a chance to use sounds that aren´t usually found in that world. It´s like a blank page you can write freely in".

And within this ensemble, he adds "subsection" of bizarre instrumental combinations: "There is a water gong, African talking drums, steel drums, pebbles, crotales on timpani skin to be played with a bow and the pedal..." - you have to see (and hear) it! But Vasco justifies this arsenal: "as a listener, it pleases me to suddenly hear something and to think: 'where did that sound come from? …" Nevertheless, he says, "the percussion is almost always integrated in the texture, used for coloristic effects, as well as a few more independent gestures related with African percussion."

The following week, performers and composer will meet again on the stage of the Grand Auditorium for a week of recording sessions. Vasco couldn´t be happier about this: "It was a fortunate confluence of situations: on the one hand, the Rolex Arts Initiative, which I was involved in two years ago, accepted my proposal for a portrait CD; on the other, the full support of the Gulbenkian Orchestra, without to which this CD would not be have been possible!" The CD will be released on Naxos, "possibly in 2019" and the recorded works are "this concerto, of course; a piece I did in 2012 for the Gulbenkian Orchestra ('GROUP TOGETHER, AVOID SPEECH'), which is a kind of concerto grosso; and the piece UNANSWERABLE LIGHT, written for Casa da Música in 2015. I feel these three pieces are a good showcase of my orchestral writing at this point."