“Grainger, Grieg, and Greg”: A Conversation with the Conductor and Guest Artist

CKCB poster May 2017

There is an interconnection between the two composers, Percy Grainger and Edvard Grieg, being featured at the Central
Kentucky Concert Band’s next concert this Sunday, May 7, 3 PM at the Lexington Opera House—they were contemporaries and appreciated each other’s musical gifts.

Percy Grainger is noted for collecting folk melodies—using wax cylinder-based recording devices which were state of the art for the turn of the 20th century—and incorporating them into his music. Dr. Ben Hawkins, conductor for the band notes the professional relationship between Grainger and Grieg, and the former’s usage of folk melodies in his compositions.

Says Dr. Hawkins, “Grieg and Grainger first met in 1906. This was not long before Grieg’s death, and very shortly after Norway had finally achieved genuine national independence. Like many 19th-century composers from other countries (Smetana, Dvorak, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Albeniz, etc.) Grieg’s love of folk tunes, and the folk influence on his original music (including the Piano Concerto) was almost certainly motivated by patriotic feelings. Grainger loved folk music, too, both that of his native Australia and of its colonial ruler, Great Britain.”

Grainger’s love for new technology assisted his composing, as was already noted.

Says Dr. Hawkins on Grainger’s fondness for the nouveau, “Grainger was brilliant, original and eccentric, and therefore inclined by nature to embrace the new and unfamiliar. His zealous advocacy for the saxophone, a very young instrument in his time, is another example of this impulse.”

Musicians enjoy the physical sensation of locking in a chord, and the successes of playing—communicating, really—a passage to the audience. Conductors do not get to play with the band, but there are rewards.

Of these rewards found in conducting Grainger, specifically, Dr. Hawkins says, “Well, the melodies are great, and [Grainger] understood the idiomatic characteristics of the individual wind instruments, and especially of the band as an aggregation of those instruments, as well as anyone of his time or after. I love his quirky interpolations and embellishments, too.”

Rehearsing the Grainger selections has involved much effort by the band and by the conductor.

Dr. Hawkins notes the effort by saying, “I think the hardest part of performing [Grainger’s] band music is also related to orchestration: his voicing and doubling is quite unconventional. He often begins a line with a certain combination of instruments, then, in the middle of a phrase, one instrument will wander off to an accompanying part, to be replaced by yet another instrument. Also, his penchant for using several different dynamic markings to try to achieve balance and greater variety of color makes for great complexity. This renders the music hard to rehearse!”

There is a lot of heavy-lifting conducting to be done at this concert. Les Anderson, the assistant conductor of CKCB and the soul of the trombone section, will give Dr. Hawkins a break and conduct several Grainger selections with his own sensitive and expressive flair.

Piano Keys

The band is thrilled to have as special guest artist, Dr. Gregory Partain, Professor of Music at Transylvania University, performing Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor.

Dr. Partain is very upbeat in performing the Piano Concerto with the band.

“The Grieg is one, of the two concertos, that has been on my bucket list since I was a teenager (and I’ve already performed the other!). For my taste, it’s simply one of the most satisfying concertos ever composed. Specifically, I find the melodies and gently dissonant harmonies extremely evocative and expressive; also, I would place Grieg among the best of 19th-century piano composers for his ability to draw marvelous sounds out of the instrument. This is virtuosic piano writing, in the grand, hyper-Romantic tradition, but the virtuosity always serves a rhetorical purpose. In all ways, I find this to be emotionally honest music—not bad for a 24-year-old composer!”

Grieg’s piece is certainly celebrated in today’s society. It could be assumed, without risk of being wrong, that the majority of Americans, at least, are familiar with the theme of the first movement. But how did Grieg’s contemporaries receive it?

Says Dr. Partain, “I cannot speak with authority about the concerto’s early reception, though I believe it was performed multiple times even in its first years of existence and, in 1909, it was the first piano concerto ever to be recorded. It was not a ground-breaking work when it premiered in 1869, one year after Grieg completed the original version. It’s more accurate to say that it beautifully exemplified an ideal of what a Romantic piano concerto was supposed to be. The originality in it derives more from Grieg’s personal melodic and harmonic language—so suggestive of Norwegian folk music, but without quoting actual folk tunes.”

It should be noted that the Piano Concerto is in three movements, but only the first exists as a wind band arrangement/accompaniment. CKCB’s very own conductor has personally arranged the last two movements especially for the band. Says Dr. Partain, “CKCB will premiere an orchestration—or transcription or translation—written by our conductor, Ben Hawkins. It’s hot off the press, and I am particularly excited to hear it.”

Says Dr. Partain of performing with the band, “I’m looking forward to this experience very much! For many, many years, I’ve listened to CKCB rehearsing in the band room next door to my office, and I’ve attended occasional concerts, too. I’ve always been struck by the players’ obvious dedication and commitment and sense of community. They are not obligated to participate in this ensemble—it’s purely out of love for the music and for making music together. That’s inspiring to me, and I feel honored to be invited into this community, if only for a few weeks!”

The band rehearsed the Piano Concerto with Dr. Partain for the first time the other evening (pictures can be found on the band’s Facebook page), and the band was quite moved by the virtuosity of Dr. Partain and the beauty of the Piano Concerto. For an insider tip, even as well-loved as the main theme is in the first movement, there are many moments of beauty in the other two. Grieg’s composition yet has a freshness to it.

There is no admission fee for the concert, and no tickets are required.