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Leading With the Lefts : Coordination Helped Composer Bolcom Knock Out 3 'Gaea' Concertos for 2 Pianists Who Use 1 Hand Each

November 06, 1996|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For some people, the idea of a piano concerto written for the left hand alone may seem a bit strange. Well, what about three concertos for the left hand?

That's what the Pacific Symphony plans to play when it introduces William Bolcom's "Gaea" Concertos for Piano Left Hand to the West Coast today and Thursday.

The Pacific commissioned the work (actually three concertos; two are played separately and then are combined to form a third) along with the Baltimore and St. Louis symphonies. Bolcom, who won the Pulitzer Prize for composition in 1988, is known for his popular American song recitals with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris.

The commission was the brainchild of Baltimore Symphony conductor David Zinman, who wanted a vehicle for Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, pianists whose brilliant careers were threatened by a malady that deprived each of the use of his right hand for concert work.

Zinman "came back to me at least three times," Bolcom, 58, recalled during a recent conversation from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. "I kept saying no. I realized it was going to be a terrific load of work, which it was."

The idea of a serious concerto for one hand goes back to Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in combat during World War I. Wittgenstein wanted to continue his concert career and commissioned several composers, including Ravel and Prokofiev, to write a concerto he could play. Of all the works, only Ravel's concerto--which at times challenges the ear to detect only a single hand playing--has gone into the standard repertory.

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Fleisher and Graffman--who played the premiere of the "Gaea" in Baltimore in April, repeated it the following month in St. Louis and will be the soloists here--did not suffer such extreme injuries. Each was stricken with repetitive stress injury, a malady increasingly familiar to people who work on computers and to musicians. Both men subsequently turned to teaching and to the piano left-hand repertory.

Bolcom wound up going well beyond the call of duty, writing a concerto for each of the two pianists and making sure the two works could be played simultaneously as a third concerto. Graffman will play his solo concerto today; Fleisher will play his Thursday, and the two will play the combined third concerto on both programs.

"Of course I tried to match the concertos to their personalities," the composer said. "Leon taught here, at the University of Michigan. I had a good idea of him. Not Gary. I had never known him much. He sent me some records, pre- and post-affliction. We started meeting a few times in New York when I was in the city. I would show him what I was doing.

"It did make it much easier once I had a fix on them. It did help me a great deal to have a physical notion of how they played and what they were like."

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Still, "it was the hardest writing I've ever had to do," Bolcom admitted. "Every note was plotted very carefully. Each concerto had to be sufficient in itself, and also the two had to fit together so you would not wind up with something indigestible." As he'd feared, "it was incredibly time-consuming. This took about almost a year of constant work."

To help organize the conceptual framework, he adopted various "mythological conceits," including Eastern philosophy, the medieval theory of the four elements and a new "Gaea" or earth-as-ecosystem theory. (The last movement is a fugue partly based on the note pattern G, A, E, A).

"I got interested in how the three kinds of cosmologies could intersect--the whole business of the four elements, yin and yang and the Gaea theory," Bolcom said. "Out of this came the notion of using fire, water, earth and air for single movements, which helped determine the instrumentation.

"What excited me is how all these various mythological conceits, including our whole musical system, intersect. They all form a weird kind of whole. . . . I don't want to get fuzzy about this and talk about it in a New Age way. If I call them mythology, others might call them religious truths. It's a matter of point of view.

"I'm fascinated by it. My believing it is another matter entirely. People ask me, 'Don't you commit to it as a matter of faith?' I say, 'Maybe all or none.' "

* Carl St.Clair will conduct the West Coast premiere of William Bolcom's "Gaea" Concertos for Piano Left Hand today and Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman will be the soloists. The program also includes works by Leonard Bernstein and Alberto Ginastera. $8-$44. (714) 755-5799.

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