As a musician who likes to explore the rare and odd byways of the repertoire as well as play the hits, I’m often asked what has drawn me to program and perform this or that unusual piece.
Depending on the venue and the listener, threshold at which “a piece” becomes an “unusual piece” might be anything from anything less well known than Beethoven 5 (like, er, Beethoven 4) to the 2nd version of an unpublished juvenile ballet suite by Schnittke’s next-door neighbour’s dog sitter.
Next week I am conducting a piece that I think we can all agree is a rarity for most concert goers, if not all music nerds- William Walton’s Variations on a Theme of Paul Hindemith. So, I thought I would answer the question- why this piece?
The reason is profound and compelling
In about 1994 or 95 I was on a break between rehearsals of the excellent Columbus Symphony and wandered over to the local sheet music store. They had a bin of orchestral scores on sale for 50% off the last marked price. I picked up a few things, including this work. The original price had been marked in pounds (not often you see a £ sign in Ohio shops). At one point it had been going for $35 bucks, a medium price for a study-sized score. There where then about 4 sale stickers, gradually reducing the price to $5.25, so I got it for $2.12.
Although I’d always loved Walton, ever since I got to know the Cello Concerto (still my favourite piece of his), I’d never encountered this work, so as I plunked down 6 quarters, five dimes and 3 nickels and got my 3 cents change, I vowed to program the piece someday in honor of this random occasion.
There wasn’t a recording in CCM’s vast library at the time, but I was finally able to order one through a record store. It was a good piece! My resolve was strengthened!
16 years later, here we are.
In all those years, I kept an ear out for the piece- I finally heard it live last spring here in my adopted home town of Cardiff, when my friend James Judd conducted it with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It was a great piece of programming- pairing this masterpiece of Walton with the wonderful and rarely heard Cello Concerto by Paul Hindemith, the very work from which the theme of the Walton is taken. The orchestra and soloist were on brilliant form that afternoon, although there were only a few waifs and strays in the audience. Why is it that the better the program, the smaller the crowd? Not to complain- my joy at hearing the piece live was tempered only by my very slight disappointment that James and the band beat me to the Walton.
It’s a pretty tough piece- Walton’s orchestra writing is always extremely demanding, but this piece seems conceived almost like a concerto for orchestra. Although they were good friends (Hindemith had been the soloist in the premiere of the Walton Viola Concerto), I never really thought their music sounded similar, but it’s fascinating how Walton can blur the line between “Waltonian” and “Hindemithian” styles.
Anyway, I’m doing the piece because I bought it for 2 bucks, and that’s a damn fine reason in my book.
You can buy the critical edition of the Variations and the Partita for Orchestra in a single volume for £160 pounds if you like.