Dedicated to Jill Richards
Parts on hire
Publisher: Bardic Edition
Study Score BD and Two-Piano Score BD in preparation
Duration: 22 minutes
First performance: Wednesday 17 October 2007; Linder Auditotium, Johannesburg, South Africa; Jill Richards piano, Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Nicholas Cleobury conductor.
This piece has what one expects in a piano concerto: a clear structure, recognizably recurring harmonies, quite complex polyrhythmic layering, lush orchestral textures with lavish percussion, a dazzling virtuoso piano part, and tunes that you can whistle as you leave the concert hall. Yet this is not a conventional ‘classical’ or ‘romantic’ concerto.
The structure was mostly not pre-determined. There are two cyclic forms (common in African and minimalist music), interwoven throughout most of the piece. One is based on the two-chord structure of traditional African bow music, the other is a sequence of four chords most often articulated by the brass. Although the concerto was composed as one 22-minute sweep, three sections are discernible: a quieter ‘slow’ movement starts halfway followed by a faster and louder finale, although the joins of the three movements are blurred. The material of the slow movement is very different from the outer two; more reflective and with lighter orchestration.
In composing I work like a filmmaker, using montage technique to construct the music. The tunes are used in different environments each time they return, so they are never quite the same. I don’t use the word ‘theme’ because I don’t ‘do’ themes and then develop them in the traditional way, but you will however find traditional and popular South African musics are woven into or referenced in this piece.
The concerto was written as a present for Jill Richards, every South African composer’s Best Friend. She has been playing my music all over the world for many years as she has other South African composers, and has recently recorded a CD of my complete solo pieces. So it was a surprise to me that this turned out to be the first piece I’d written especially for her!
The first performance was given on 17 October 2007 in the Linder Auditorium Johannesburg, by and the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Cleobury.
“Blake se Rain Dancing is stilisties deeglik ingebed in ‘n Afrika-minimalisme met al sy voor- en nadele… Die poliritmiese lae waarvan Blake in sy notas melding maak, hou die werk aardgebonde en maak die klavier eerder ‘n obligaat-instrument as ‘n solistiese teenspeler. Daar is met die ontgunning van klankkleure fassinerende elemente in die 22 minute: eksotiese melismes, vindingryke timbre-samevoegings, warlike gevorderde hantering van slagwerk, terwyl die orkestrale kleure soms die impressionistiese sfeer van ‘n eeu gelede binnedring…In dié concerto is daar weliswaar meer kontraswerking teen die einde, met uitgesproke liriese passasies gedra deur die solis — veral met uiters verfynde spel in die hoé register. Ook die slot woel himself aanvanklik moeisaam los, maar eindig tog verrassend.”
“Blake’s Rain Dancing is stylistically deeply embedded in an African minimalism… The polyrhythmic layers which Blake mentions in his programme notes, bind the work together and make the piano an obbligato rather than a solo player. With the exploiting of timbres there are fascinating elements in the 22 minute span: exotic melismas, ingenious colour combinations, extremely demanding use of percussion), while the orchestral colours sometimes inhabit the impressionist sphere of a century ago… In this concerto there is indeed more contrast towards the end, with expressive, lyrical passages for the soloist — especially with very refined playing in the high register. The conclusion also unwinds slowly at first, but nevertheless ends with a surprise.”
— Paul Boekkooi, Die Beeld, Johannesburg
— Translation: Giel Swart
“Michael Blake’s Piano Concerto enjoys the alternate title “Rain Dancing” and as the composer noted in his all too brief introduction to the world première at the Linder Auditorium last night “it hasn’t rained this much in Gauteng in October for years”. The comment might have been made in jest but it actually gives an acute insight into what Michael Blake really is. A shaman. His compositional practices derive in equal part from cinema editing and sculpture. He works with his computer timeline as a fine artist would, shaping and teasing form into wry, elfin sets of sound that skip away from balance and artfully elude perfection. There is a willful perversity in Blake’s approach to sound. It’s as if he knows exactly what we would like to hear a motif develop into and instead of feeding us what we want he conjures up possibilities that are maddeningly close to our own sense of resolution but never quite get there.
Blake is a carrot dangler and his sometimes fey, sometimes wistful melodies encourage us to hum, to whistle, and even occasionally, to jig - but never in a way that would actually release the tension that his compositions ever so gradually build towards…intriguingly the Rain Concerto’s most memorable sections occur when percussion and strings talk to each other and the climax of the work is a full on Joburg thunder storm. One expects the cavalry to charge, cannons blazing.
On the way to this zesty climax there’s a great deal of repetitive phrasing but it isn’t the kind of austere minimalism we know from Steve Reich or the agonizingly empty on and on-ness of Philip Glass; Michael Blake’s shamanism evokes the giddy swirling of the Baal Shem tov on Shabbas, tossing back the vodkas and merrily dancing his praises to Hashem. If you could imagine the most playful rigour or the most rigorous playfulness then you would be some way towards appreciating this shamanistic invocation by Michael Blake that demands to be described as drunken minimalism. Rain on!”
— Aryan Kaganof, Kagablog, Thursday 18 October 2007