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Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Oceans Apart

New York-native composer Justin Dello Joio wrote his powerful concerto Oceans Apart for the great pianist Garrick Ohlsson on commission from the BSO.

Justin Norman Dello Joio was born October 18, 1955, in New York City, and lives there. The seed of his new piano concerto Oceans Apart was planted more than a decade ago when he proposed writing the concerto to Garrick Ohlsson (see below). The piece was originally co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director, with support from the New Works Fund of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency, and by the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, Myun-Whun Chung, Music Director. Dello Joio composed the piece over several years, completing it in fall 2021. These are the world premiere performances.

The score of Dello Joio’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Oceans Apart, calls for 3 flutes (2nd doubling alto flute, 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players: I. vibraphone, xylophone, large splash cymbal, small splash cymbal, large Chinese suspended cymbal, small tam tam, large tam tam, 2 bongos, conga, log drums; II. marimba, crotales (octave set), xylophone, glass wind chimes, timbales, bell tree, vibraslap, hi-hat, medium splash cymbal, sizzle cymbal, medium tam tam, large tam tam, large metal sheet, wood block; III. glockenspiel, chimes, maracas, whip, 2 wood blocks, temple blocks. rain stick, glass wind chimes, bell tree, tuned nipple gong in B-flat, large splash cymbal, large tam tam, 3 tom toms, large bass drum), harp, piano, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 20 minutes long.

It was while Justin Dello Joio was attending the Juilliard School in New York City that he first became aware of the pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who preceded him by a few years at the school and who, in 1970, received worldwide attention as the first (and to date only) American to win the International Chopin Piano Competition. Himself a pianist, Dello Joio recognized in Ohlsson’s playing a rare combination of musical sensitivity and insight aligned with unparalleled technical prowess. When, about fifteen years ago, the label Bridge Records was preparing an album of Dello Joio’s music, Ohlsson was enlisted as pianist for two solo works, the Two Concert Etudes and the Piano Sonata. It was at that time that Dello Joio suggested writing a concerto for Ohlsson, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra was brought in as a commissioning partner.

Born into a musical family, Justin Dello Joio is a seventh-generation composer, the son of the celebrated American composer Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008), who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for his Meditations on Ecclesiastes. Justin began to study piano around age 5 and received the rudiments of music from his father, though he soon began working with teachers outside the family. He grew up in an environment steeped in music, and it was in some sense inevitable that he’d become a musician himself—although, contrariwise, the opposite could also happen: his brother Norman, a year younger, became an internationally accomplished equestrian who, among many honors, earned a bronze medal in show jumping at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. At any rate, such legendary musicians as the pianist Vladimir Horowitz and the violinist Isaac Stern were among the family’s friends and acquaintances. His own immediate family is pan-artistic: his wife, Marianne Bachmann, is a former dancer who danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and currently teaches Martha Graham technique at the JKO School of American Ballet Theater and the Alvin Ailey School; his daughter Chiara is a writer.

A lifetime New Yorker, Justin Dello Joio attended the Pre-College program at the Juilliard School and, from age 12, studied with composer (and future Pulitzer Prize winner) Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. He also worked with composer Hall Overton and composer and jazz pianist Roland Hanna. He went on to earn his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Juilliard, where his teachers included Vincent Persichetti, Roger Sessions, and David Diamond. At the Aspen Music Festival he also encountered Jacob Druckman and the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, both of whom he considers important influences. A dedicated teacher, Dello Joio joined the faculty of New York University soon after earning his doctorate and teaches orchestration for young composers at Juilliard.

Justin Dello Joio came of artistic age at a time when the “classical” music world was incredibly fractured and heterogenous, with styles as varied as traditional post-Romanticism and pre-war neoclassicism (Igor Stravinsky, Samuel Barber), post-war integral serialism and atonality (Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt), John Cage-influenced process, theatrical, and Dadaist works, minimalism (early Terry Riley and Steve Reich), traditional, Third Stream, and free jazz (Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton), and overwhelming waves of popular music, especially rock, all vied for ascendency or, at the least, respectful attention if not commercial success. Although he doesn’t consider himself a neo-Romantic, he recognizes an affinity with composers linked to that movement. While taking in and mastering available techniques and styles, he developed his own compositional voice with its foundations in a robust, characterful lyricism. Perhaps most characteristic of his approach are his Music for Piano Trio “The March of Folly, his Due Per Due written for NY Philharmonic Principal Cellist Carter Brey, and his chamber opera Blue Mountain, commissioned to commemorate the centennial of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg's death. Although unusual for Dello Joio in its frequent allusions to another composer’s music, the opera’s fundamental melodic strain and concern for establishing mood and musical character are essential to his work as a whole. (A recording was made of the original version of the opera and a plan was beginning to take shape to take the work to New York City Opera, but that company entered a period of instability that precluded further consideration.) Deeply interested in the power of narrative and drama in music, the composer is also engaged in a project to create an opera from Chilean novelist Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits. He has been commissioned by the Detroit Symphony, American Brass Quintet, Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, and the Koussevitzky Foundation at the Library of Congress, among many others. The American Academy of Arts and Letters presented him with its prestigious Award in Music, the Virgil Thompson Award in Vocal Writing for his opera, and the Lakond Award, and he is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Dello Joio’s Piano Sonata, one of the pieces through which Garrick Ohlsson got to know his music first-hand, is a substantial, three-movement work, about 25 minutes long, that in both its title and its makeup is solidly grounded in the idea of the traditional piano sonata as developed by Mozart, Beethoven, and two hundred years of successors. Most relevant to the present concerto is its sheer pianistic quality—that is, this music is written not abstractly for the instrument but rather from the point of view of the piano’s history, physicality, and sound. Although Dello Joio wrote his new concerto with Ohlsson’s stunning capabilities in mind and not his own, he couldn’t help but feel the piece as he wrote it—the performer’s experience saturates the music. “When I’m working on it,” he related, “I’m playing.” In a sense, the same is true of the orchestral music of the concerto, which creates an environment sometimes almost tactile in its sonic impact—hence the metaphor of the powerful ocean wave noted in the composer’s comments on his piece.

The concerto was conceived from the beginning as a single movement with “triggering events” marking, in a sense, the starts of new variants or new ideas. The opening gesture, a percussive chord in the piano punctuated by the orchestra, is an important such event. These inflection points, to continue the wave metaphor, re-energize the music for the next event and impel the music forward through significant changes in texture. Unlike in a traditional concerto, the solo piano is an almost constant presence requiring real virtuosity and brilliance. The piece unfolds organically and without pause. An introductory passage establishes a world of blended orchestral colors and pianistic gestures involving a great deal of rhythmic freedom. The piano part is the primary event throughout, but it’s at times overwhelmed by the power and complexity of the ensemble, while on occasion—notably in a long solo passage near the beginning—it emerges as starkly independent. Colorful orchestral washes of sound (often involving individual players playing short, overlapping, unphased patterns) such as those in the opening passage contrast with the solo part and serve to clarify the piano’s sound. In other passages, clearly etched figurations respond to or engage in dialog with the soloist. The music is never static, rarely (and only briefly) slow, and always evolving, with earlier material recurring near the end to provide a sense of transformation and conclusion.

The contrasts and confluences between the soloist and orchestra (as a collective and as a group of individuals) reflect another metaphorical aspect of the piece the composer touches on in his program note. Dello Joio—not alone, by any means, among artists—feels that engaging with the social nature of art is a necessary part of the expressive process. The multiple points of reference—to the social climate, the natural world, and, most immediately, to the physical, sonic space created by the soloist and orchestra—are the key ingredients in this work of nuanced and urgent power.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.

Justin Dello Joio on his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, "Oceans Apart"

The title, Oceans Apart, could hold many different connotations, and I hope listeners interpret it in a way that is meaningful for them. For me, the meaning refers to both broader issues—the uncertain, unsettling, and crazy climate of our time, and more intimate personal things. In the broad sense, the separation of concert music from so much of American society today, is an issue of concern, regret, and occasionally dread. As someone who feels this genre is the epitome of human expression, and has joyfully devoted my life to it, it is troubling to watch it drift farther and farther away from the consciousness of an ever-increasing number in our country.

There is my sense of astonishment at the immensity, the oceanic vastness, of the polarization of our time. People seem to be moving irreparably apart. The waves of misinformation spreading relentlessly over the web, the belief that such a thing as “alternative facts” can exist, and the swell of unharnessed power this has caused—these were in my thoughts. The gulf between sides is vast and difficult to comprehend, and that is reflected in the opening bars in simplistic perhaps naive musical terms—the unresolved tritone in the low register in the piano and the highest sounds, beyond any specific pitch, whispering incomprehensibly and at the edge of audibility in the strings.

In the more personal sense, like many artists, there is the sense of where I find myself and where I wish to be.

Writing this piece conjured to my mind the unlikely images of big wave surfers; one person surrounded—nearly consumed—by the daunting force and fury of these massive 100-foot walls of water. That scale feels akin to the relationship of a piano soloist and the force of a large symphony orchestra, whose sound is a vibration that manifests as a wave.

Music is truly an abstract language but as Robert Schumann said, it expresses all that words cannot. I wrote this piano concerto for Garrick Ohlsson, who is indisputably one of the greatest musicians of our day. With so many great masterworks, music of great depth and extraordinary pianism in the piano concerto genre, over eighty of which Mr. Ohlsson plays by memory, I found this a marvelous and daunting challenge. I hoped to make the piano the center of a true duet with the orchestra, while still allowing for the excitement of hearing a master virtuoso.

Justin Dello Joio