Commissioned and premiered by pianist Xiayin Wang and the Fine Arts Quartet, this piano quintet, which the composer counts among his very best, was premiered at Merkin Hall in New York.
Terroir was commissioned in 2013 by Xiayin Wang, the Fine Arts Quartet and International Performing Artists, and composed throughout the fall and winter. It is scored for the traditional piano quintet instrumentation of two violins, viola, cello and piano. I’ve admired the artistry of both Xiayin and the Fine Arts for many years, the former from several years of musical partnership and friendship, and the latter from their vast discography of excellent recordings on the Naxos label. Xiayin and the Fine Arts are prolific recording artists and of course perform throughout the world.
Xiayin commissioned Cursive, for solo piano, in 2008, which she premiered at Alice Tully Hall. For this new work, I wanted a complete contrast to it and my other music from recent years, a work that would pay homage to the great tradition of this instrumentation – with works by Brahms, Dvorak, Faure, Martinu, Shostakovich and others – while hopefully satisfying the desire to paint on a larger scale in the Romantic tradition. In many respects, it’s like no other piece of mine.
Terroir, a title that sprung up and stayed with me for months as I began, generally refers to a sense of place. Often used in reference to viticulture or agriculture, the characteristics of a place or region are assumed to contribute to the character and uniqueness of, for instance, a French Bordeaux or a Central Valley eggplant. It was in that spirit that I gave the piece its particular title, which describes its native characteristics and the specificity of the time and place of its composition. In some respects, this work is more rooted in tradition than any other work of mine.
The title of the first movement, Misericord, refers to the small shelf introduced in the 13th-century to provide comfort to the standing congregant during a long mass. It also refers to a small dagger of the same time used to dispatch a knight after a mortal wound, both meanings giving some form of relief. A slow, doleful opening prelude leads to a quick and often loud e minor section, which in turn heads into a piano ostinato of loud chords repeated from top to bottom. Various melodic cells, tossed between the instruments, find themselves compressed in the closing pages with a dry and affirmative ending.
Darkness Comes the Dawn centers on two long-held chords on the strings, one of mild tension, one of near release. High, tinkling chords in the piano and a pizzicato string section carry into a piano ostinato. The music then settles into a broad and sonorous section in Ab, thunderous octaves in the piano left hand heading into the opening music of the movement, this time augmented by bright figuration in the piano which moves up into its highest register until the player is simply out of keyboard.
Chevauchee was the perversely successful English and French siege tactic used with brutal efficacy in the Hundred Years War, and which left large portions of France nearly bereft of its people, crops, animals and towns. A loud, disorienting opening leads to repeated, belligerent chords in all the instruments before a vast, wasted expanse is perceived, perhaps through the mist of morning. A confusing melee returns and again dissipates, this time disquieted by widely-spaced octaves in the piano. A broad mid-section is reached, where the sonorous sound of the string ensemble reigns. A return to the unsettling chaos in 3/8 is heralded by the piano in its deepest register, strings reaching upward and a high and lonely A in the piano closing the piece with a question mark.
Terroir is dedicated to Xiayin Wang and the Fine Arts Quartet, in thanks and in friendship.