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John Musto: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Two Concert Rags

Musto / Greeley Pco / Cortese
Release Date: 08/13/2013 
Label:  Bridge   Catalog #: 9399   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  John Musto
Performer:  John Musto
Conductor:  Scott YooGlen Cortese
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 8 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MUSTO Piano Concertos Nos. 1 1 and 2. 2 Concert Rags: Regrets; In Stride John Musto (pn); 1 Scott Yoo, cond; 2 Glen Cortese, cond. 1 Odense SO; 2 Greeley PO BRIDGE Read more 9399 (68:27)

I never met a piano concerto I didn’t like. (Well, hardly ever.) While breaking no new ground, these two concertos by American composer John Musto (b. 1954) are immensely likeable, highly individual, and well worth hearing. Different though they are from each other, both exude an attractively American urban sensibility.

The first, lasting 30 minutes, is in three movements. Its first movement opens with a pensive theme on solo clarinet, soon joined by a second clarinet. Initially this proves disconcerting––a very famous piano concerto also opens this way––but the theme is merely the beginning of a series of restless, discursive episodes that make up this rhapsodic 18-minute movement. While the music may seem to ramble, possibly reflecting the work’s long gestation––the Concerto was begun in 1988 and not completed in its final form until 2005––it is clear after several listenings that the falling three-note motif played at the beginning informs everything that follows. Musto’s piano is an equal partner with the orchestra, often driving the work forward and (in both concertos) taking lengthy solos. The piano writing is elaborate and decorative but, as I say, it is more than just a filigree commentary on the musical argument. The first movement is also knitted together by a feeling of unease beneath the surface; possibly something to do with the HIV/AIDS crisis that was peaking at the time the work was begun. (Musto’s notes make reference to this; the pianist for whom he was writing this Concerto passed away before it was finished.)

In the second and third movements, which get progressively faster, the composer’s beloved ragtime sneaks into the mix in the shape of syncopated rhythms. The harmony, however, remains astringent: Musto, like many contemporary composers, utilizes the lingua franca of mid-late 20th-century tonality in an unrestrictive and personal way. The Concerto as a whole has a real sweep to it, from the exploratory opening to the decisive close. Again, the form becomes increasingly clear with familiarity.

Musto’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (2006) is slightly shorter and more upbeat. Also in three movements, it makes even more overt reference to “big city” jazz in both its musical language and instrumental textures.

To digress for a moment: In a recent article in Gramophone , Philip Clark wrote about various attempts over the years to fuse jazz and concert-hall classical music. He was particularly harsh on the “third stream” works of the 1950s and 60s, suggesting that those hybrids, along with earlier pieces such as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue , simply didn’t work. (So why do I enjoy listening to them so much?) Musto is post-third stream, tagging him definitively as a 21st-century musician. He dips into the world of jazz for rhythmic or instrumental color, as a painter might employ a distinctive shade of “blue” from a wide palette. We have moved past straightforward fusion now (which was Clark’s contention––I agree with him there), to a point where the creative artist may find inspiration wherever he or she will, and what those influences meant in another context becomes irrelevant.

So: The Second Concerto’s first movement is built on a jazzily syncopated rhythmic figure, and the second movement includes a quirky dancelike episode featuring a distant, muted trumpet. Yet the piano writing remains classically orientated: It rarely sounds improvisatory and, unlike most jazz piano, makes frequent use of the extremes of the keyboard (particularly the upper end). The driving third movement is something of a tour de force for the soloist, requiring easily as much facility and stamina as the finales of the piano concertos by Ravel and Barber that it echoes. It occurs to me that, had he lived long enough to hear it, Leonard Bernstein would have wished he had written this piece of music.

Two short selections from the Five Concert Rags for piano solo provide a fascinating makeweight. The first, a slow and harmonically chromatic rag called “Regrets,” sets out a memorable theme, varies it (including with clever canonic imitation), then virtually deconstructs it before coming to a quiet close. The second rag, “In stride,” is more of a strut. It follows the same trajectory, starting strongly but veering suddenly into a minor key and never fully recovering. These are two of the most sophisticated pieces I know in this happily reactivated genre.

All the works here require a formidable technician to even attempt them, and Musto’s skill at the keyboard certainly impresses. Both orchestras cope well with the demands made on them, while conductors Yoo and Cortese clearly have the measure of the music and show considerable expertise in keeping it all together. (The accented chords in the Second Concerto’s third movement could not be more punchy, to give just one instance.) Intending no criticism of these fine performers, I do wonder how much more detail and expressive nuance might be found, in the First Concerto especially, by a full-time virtuoso concert pianist and a first-rate symphony orchestra with ample time to prepare their performance? Hopefully that will come, because these works deserve to be more than one-offs. (Ones-off?) Meanwhile, kudos to Bridge Records for unearthing this terrific music and getting it recorded.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Piano Concerto No. 1 by John Musto
Performer:  John Musto (Piano)
Conductor:  Scott Yoo
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 1988 
Venue:  Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark 
Length: 30 Minutes 19 Secs. 
Five Concert Rags: Regrets by John Musto
Performer:  John Musto (Piano)
Venue:  Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark 
Length: 6 Minutes 32 Secs. 
Five Concert Rags: In Stride by John Musto
Performer:  John Musto (Piano)
Venue:  Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark 
Length: 5 Minutes 37 Secs. 
Piano Concerto No. 2 by John Musto
Performer:  John Musto (Piano)
Conductor:  Glen Cortese
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 2006 
Venue:  Monfort Concert Hall, Union Colony Civic 
Length: 25 Minutes 54 Secs. 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 These concertos benefit from the composer's touch September 27, 2013 By Ralph Graves (Hood, VA) See All My Reviews "John Musto performs his piano concertos with telling effect. While these works are technically challenging, I don't hear keyboard prowess being the purpose of these works. Rather, the focus seems to be on the beauty and integrity of the musical expression. Which is what makes this recording work so well. Musto has the ability to play with precision and authority -- which he does -- but it's his phrasing and articulation that gets to the heart of these works. <br /> <br /> Musto's first piano concerto (composed in 1988) opens with a solo clarinet that sets the tone for the work. It begins with a lyrical atonality that gradually builds in intensity. While this is a big composition, there are places that are surprisingly intimate. As the work progresses, the aggressive dissonances begin to soften. The second movement introduces a touch of ragtime, leading into a bustling and satisfying final movement. <br /> <br /> The Piano Concerto No. 2, written 18 years after the first, shows how much the composer's skill has developed. The orchestration is more varied, and more adventurous. While the first concerto flirted the vocabulary of popular music, this one fully incorporated it, in the way that Gershwin's &quot;Rhapsody in Blue&quot; encapsulated jazz. Unlike Gershwin's Rhapsody, Musto's concerto is more fully realized, and highly structured. <br /> <br /> That's not to say the second concerto's a stuffy academic exercise. The music flows seamlessly from start to finish in an inviting fashion. It's only later that you realize that the engaging first movement cadenza involved some deftly written counterpoint. <br /> <br /> Separating the two concertos in the program are two of Musto's concert rags. They're appealing light classical compositions, perfect encore material." Report Abuse
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