Monday, February 19, 2018

Concerto-izing, Episode 2

Work on the newly commissioned Peanuts Concerto has proceeded smoothly, and Dick Tunney has kindly paused on occasion, in order to keep us up to date. (Read about the genesis of this project here.)

When last Dick checked in, he reported being “almost finished” with the second (Christmas) movement. “I did finish the piano portion, and sent it to Jeffrey [Biegel],” he said. “Lots of exclamation points and thumbs up from him.”

As of this moment, the piece’s premiere is scheduled for March 2019, “but there could well be a prior performance,” Dick adds, “depending on when the work is completed and ready for the stage.”

I was curious about his decision to begin with the middle movement (having naively assumed that one works on such a project from start to finish). He kindly sent a marvelously detailed reply, and I’ll turn the rest of this post over to him:


I began with this movement because I’m most familiar with the songs in the Christmas special. As I get to the end of this concerto, there will be times when I’ll be slogging my way through, and I never want to be doing that at the beginning of a project. Pace and momentum tend to keep my interest up; once I get a good bit of a piece under my belt, it’s always nice to look back and see the progress made.  

The plan to have a Christmas movement was there from the beginning, and building it to be a pull-out/stand-alone movement also was present from the outset. Placing it in the middle of the concerto probably is 90% in stone at this point, but I’m not ready for the cement to harden on that idea.  

The previous concerto that I did stayed pretty closely to typical concert form for a three-movement work: fast/slow/fast. As it stands right now, the Christmas movement isn’t exclusively slow. The anchor (of course!) is “Linus and Lucy,” which will appear in some form or fashion as a theme — or theme fragment — in each of the three movements.  

We considered creating a four-movement work — one of which would be a Christmas movement — but ultimately decided that it would be easier for a conductor/music director to program a pops/classical type of work in a 16- to 17-minute form, rather than a 22- to 25-minute form. The concerto itself will unfold in the next several months, and I’ll make final decisions on the placement of the Christmas movement when the work is a little more complete.

I definitely wanted to include “O Tannenbaum,” even though it isn’t written by Guaraldi. The jazz harmonies are nice, and they will translate really well to the orchestra. Additionally — to the best of my knowledge — Jeffery has secured permission to use some stills and possibly even some video footage, to be shown while he’s playing the concerto; the jazz/walk section of this, where Charlie Brown is carrying the Christmas tree home, is so iconic for me, that I included both sections of “O Tannenbaum” in the movement. Finally, I watched the Christmas special with my grandkids over the holidays, and was reminded of the context in which Guaraldi’s music was used.

Infusing the music into the animation, and visualizing it as I created the Christmas movement, was an important part of the process. Bridging the gap between jazz and classical is the biggest musical challenge; my goal is to be true to the Guaraldi creations, while projecting it to the symphonic stage.  

All that said, “O Tannenbaum” just stuck with me after watching the Christmas special.

I’m using the notation software, Finale, to put notes on the page. It’s quite a powerful tool, and has audio playback capability; when I put something in place, I can hear the notes and intended combinations of instruments. That’s quite a valuable facet of the software. It also can convert the notation to midi files, which I can insert into the audio workstation in my home studio; that allows me to adjust specific instrument sounds, tempos, individual volumes, etc.  

I love the scenes in Amadeus, when Mozart dictates what he hears in his head to Salieri, who scrambles to get each note in place on the page, as quickly as Mozart hears it. Happily, longhand transcription is pretty much a thing of the past in our world. Now it’s mouse-clicks, computer screens and playback. All of which I’m grateful for!

(Click to enlarge image)

The extract here is approximately 18 to 20 measures of the opening of the second (Christmas) movement, with staves of brass, percussion, piano and first violin. (The remaining string staves — violin 2, viola, cello, bass — and all of the woodwinds — two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons — are missing.) The sequential numbers across the top of the score are the measure numbers; the double bar at the end of measure 18 is the downbeat of “Skating.” The instrument — or instrument groups — are listed on the left side of the page; the piano is about two-thirds of the way down. That’s what Jeffrey will play from. This score is what the conductor will see (well, this plus the missing instruments). There’s a lot on this page, and some quite fun music.

It certainly makes my life a lot easier than quill and ink!


Watch this space for further installments, as the Peanuts Concerto continues to take shape.

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