Frank J. Oteri
March 23, 2009

About a year and half ago, we did a NewMusicBox cover on David Rakowski, in preparation for which I studied his then 80 solo piano etudes and became a hardcore devotee. These quirky pieces are a rare breed—they’re pithy and some are even hysterically funny, no small feat to accomplish in the abstract, non-representational medium of music. As a result, pianists flock to them, and they are fast becoming staples of the contemporary solo piano repertoire. But all through our talk, David insisted that he’s more than “the piano etude guy”. He mentioned to me that he had written a piano concerto for Marilyn Nonken and that she would be performing it with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose in Boston on November 2, 2007. I’m also a big BMOP fan—here’s an orchestra that really can play, and all they do is new music. So I knew I had to be there.

So on that day, I left the office at lunchtime, zoomed downtown to take the Chinatown bus (the cheapest way to get to Boston). I rolled into Beantown, and then got on the T to head to the concert hall. After gulping down dinner from a Middle Eastern take-out place, I raced across the street and made it there just in time. But once the concert was over—having no place to crash that night and also needing to be back in NYC for another music-related activity the following morning—I bolted out during the final applause and barely made it onto the last bus back, finally getting home around 3:30 a.m. It was truly a whirlwind, as was Rakowski’s concerto, which to my ears at the time lacked the cohesion and concision of his miraculous miniatures. Admittedly, though, my ability to process any of the music I heard that night—Elliott Schwartz’s heady Chamber Concerto #3, Michael Colgrass’s wonderfully insane multi-tasking concerto Side by Side, and Anthony Davis’s intense Wayang V, as well as the Rakowski—was a tad hampered by the commute.

Therefore I was overjoyed when I received a recording of Rakowski’s Piano Concerto, which is part of BMOP’s newly-released all-Rakowski CD on their beautifully packaged BMOP/sound imprint. I could now actually focus on this music. Even the etudes, which offer first-time listeners quite a bit to mull over and be engaged by, contain tons of sonic information which can be difficult to process on only a single listening. I knew that those pieces got more exciting—as well as more comprehensible—the more I heard them. So I was delighted at the prospect of the Piano Concerto‘s secrets, heretofore lost on me in transit, finally being revealed.

Indeed, the piece, which I’ve now listened to five times, is a remarkable construction. Derived from material that originally appeared in the piano etudes, but fleshed out with colorful orchestration (including having the soloist additionally play on a toy piano from time to time), the concerto feels like a giant four-dimensional Rakowski etude. (A fun parlor game would be to figure out how many etudes you can hear echoes of herein. Some hard-to-miss ones include the frenetic ostinato from the very first etude, E-Machines, and the rhythmic motif from No. 68, Absofunkinlutely.) Each of the work’s four movements opens with the inside-the-piano plucked “A” from Rakowski’s 13th etude, Plucking A, which gives the work’s overall trajectory an unusual non-linear narrative. It’s like beginning every chapter of a novel with the same opening sentence, or the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. Like that film, the material develops quite differently each time it is presented. The closest parallel I can think of in music is the Fourth Symphony of Charles Ives, each of whose movements seem to present a different answer to the same question. Rakowski’s concerto feels equally serious, although this is perhaps in part due to his perpetual title punning being reined in somewhat. “Piano Concerto” is an atypical Rakowski title, but still he was incapable of resisting the following header for the last movement: “Poco andante, quasi adagietto, con gusty; Allegro; Cadenza; Allegro”—a nod to composer Augusta Read Thomas.

The disc also offers additional proof of Rakowski’s weightier side. It opens with Persistent Memory, a 1997 composition which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. This is music that is way more somber and sublime than fans who only know Rakowski through the etudes would ever expect. It was originally written for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra during a particularly rough period in his life—his mother-in-law was dying of cancer and he could not afford to travel to see her before she died or to attend her funeral. In addition, Lily Auchincloss, the woman who had sponsored Rakowski’s residence at the Rome Academy, where he was at the time of the composition, also died. So it’s fitting, then, that the first of the work’s two movements is an Elegy, which comes across to my ears sounding like latter-day Alban Berg. The other movement—Variations, Scherzo, and Variations—takes the material from the Elegy and messes with it structurally, turning it into something else entirely, though never quite completely away from its fundamental profundity.

At the other end of disc is the brief Winged Contraption (1991), the earliest of the works collected here. Composed in a total of 23 days—conceptualized, orchestrated, and copied all at once—the work was a 60th birthday present for Martin Boykan, Rakowski’s colleague on the faculty of Brandeis University. In typical Rakowski prankster fashion, it is filled with allusions to Boykan’s compositions as well as music by another friend, Ross Bauer (although these references are a bit harder to ferret out than the etudes that permeate the Piano Concerto). All in all, the disc provides a much needed window into Rakowski’s music beyond the piano etudes. So if you’re even a fraction less out of your mind than I am, you probably won’t spend 10 hours on a bus to check out Rakowski’s “other music,” but now you no longer have to: just buy the disc!