Inner conflict: Something we all can relate to, whether you’ve wavered between choosing between the red or blue shoes to wear to school or struggled to make a life-changing decision or fought to kick a harmful addiction.
One thing I love about music is that it can give such beauty to something that most people struggle with so mightily.
The second movement of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is an achingly beautiful depiction of inner conflict: in other words, every human being’s struggle. Here's a recording I like!
We played the concerto at Grant Park with the amazing Alessio Bax at the piano. The first time we ran through the movement, I was shocked by how personal this movement was. The movement isn’t really in a key, and even the beautiful opening theme wanders around, not certain of the note on which to center. Falling seconds and thirds are prominent, climbing higher throughout the theme but not really reaching a pinnacle. Instead, the motive grows more chromatic, exploring each interval until returning to the starting pitch. Was anything resolved? The flute and the oboe share the first statement of the theme, but what always gave me goosebumps was the piano’s entry because of the new harmonies that came with it. There’s a soft low note that the piano sounds and it always reminded me of the stroke of “reality”, real life, real struggles. It gives the “ungrounded”, wandering theme a taste of reality, whether good or bad. The orchestra reacts, commenting on the solo piano’s struggling. We try to find a way for him to get past everything, but we just end up repeating what he’s said. In the second section, thoughts are swirling in the form of chromatic lines beginning high in the strings and continuing through the low strings and winds/brass. The strings sink lower and lower until the violas go against the grain, trying to grasp at one note by slinking chromatically around it, missing it, and finally making it, allowing the piano to go on thinking, wavering, dreaming, this time with more fluttering thoughts threatening to carry him away. The strings finally save him (again) taking over the theme while he is left to ponder his world of fluttering thoughts. The movement ends again with the strings’ chromatic comments and the piano’s statement of the last part of the theme. The higher strings and winds stay with him to the very end in unison. What I love about this movement is the beauty that is found despite the lack of tonal center. There is such an ethereal sensitivity in all the chromaticism and uncertainty. Even though there were over 12,000 people in the audience at Millennium Park both nights we performed it, during the second movement, it felt as though we were all having a quiet conversation and inviting the audience to listen in. The experience was truly something I’ll never forget.