Earlier this year, publisher Schott Music celebrated the 70th birthday of its C.E.O., Peter Hanser-Strecker (known to friends as “Petrushka”), by commissioning 70 of its composers to create short piano works for him. The pieces were premiered at concerts in Mainz, Germany (Schott’s headquarters); Beijing; and, on June 19, at Juilliard. This final installment featured 22 world premieres of short works for piano solo, by composers such as Andrew Norman, Howard Shore, and Juilliard composition chair Robert Beaser. The pieces, each two to five minutes long, were divided into sets and performed by pianists Christopher McKiggan and Michael Brown (B.M. ’09, M.M. ’11, piano and composition).
In a recent conversation with The Journal, Beaser expressed his enthusiasm for the project. “I wanted to participate because Peter is such a great force in music, and Schott really is the last of the great independently held publishing houses,” he said. Schott, which boasts historic relationships with many great composers including Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner, has indeed managed to weather the multitude of storms that have faced music publishers over the last half century.
Beaser, who also serves as artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in some ways curated the New York event. After being approached by Schott, he broached the idea of having Juilliard host with Dean Ara Guzelimian. “He liked the idea, so we found the date and then thought of ways to get more Juilliard involvement,” Beaser said. “I thought Michael Brown—a former student of mine and of [composition faculty member] Samuel Adler, who is both a wonderful composer and pianist—would be an obvious choice and a perfect exponent for this.”
Beaser’s own contribution to the evening, a flashy and vigorous three-minute piece titled Pag-Rag, had a roundabout conception. A few years ago, “I met Christopher McKiggan in Thailand. He played my piece Souvenirs miraculously well, and I thought, ‘Who is this guy and why is he so good?’” Beaser said. “Then, he called me about a year ago and said ‘I’m commissioning people to write pieces based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice, and I’d love you to try to write something.” Intrigued, Beaser began making sketches. When the Schott commission arrived, he began working on the two concurrently. “This piece [for Schott] was a dance,” Beaser continued, “and Chris’s piece was a kind of toccata, and one day I was working on both of them back-to-back, and I realized I really needed to put them together. I called Chris up and said, ‘Would you mind, and by the way, would you like to do this concert?’.”
The pieces in place, all that was left was for the music to actually get composed. Brown, who double-majored in piano performance and composition at Juilliard, received his 10 scores about a month prior to the performance and was surprised by their musical range. “It’s nice to know that people are writing in so many varied styles these days,” he said. Having studied piano with Jerome Lowenthal and Robert McDonald, Brown is enjoying a burgeoning career in both composition and performance, often performing his own works, most recently as part of the Concert Artists Guild Winners Series in Carnegie’s Weill Hall and as the winner of Juilliard’s William Petschek Recital Award. For this project, his versatility was particularly useful. “I Skyped with one of the composers, but for the most part I was on my own,” he said of readying his 10 pieces, which is unusual when preparing a world premiere.
While the live concerts in the Petrushka Project—which also included works by Peter Maxwell Davies, Bernard Rands, and current Juilliard student Peng-Peng Gong—are now complete, each performance was digitally archived and may be viewed on YouTube. In addition, each work has been engraved and may be previewed and purchased from Schott’s Web site. If the Juilliard concert is any indication, many gems have been added to the contemporary piano music repertoire and they are sure to challenge and delight musicians for years to come.