Commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, Robert Beaser, artistic director; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor laureate, with support from the National Endowment for hte Arts
First performance: October 13, 2006, Zankel Hall, New York; Evan Ziporyn, soloist; Bradley Lubman, conductor; American Composers Orchestra
Recording: Big Grenadilla/Mumbai (Cantaloupe), 2012 - Evan Ziporyn, soloist; Gil Rose, conductor; Boston Modern Orchesra Project
Also available (download only) on Orchestra Underground: X10D (ACO), 2012 - Evan Ziporyn, soloist; Bradley Lubman, conductor; American Composers Orchestra
The concerto is traditionally a heroic form, which doesn’t jibe well with an egalitarian approach to music. But it would have been foolish to squander the chance to be at stage front amid New York’s finest musicians. Big Grenadilla is my second bass clarinet concerto: in 2001's Drill, for bass clarinet and wind ensemble, I cast myself in the role of drill sergeant, leading the troops through a vigorous basic training. In BG the soloist and conductor are first among equals, leading a boisterous band, er, orchestra.
Bass clarinet is the instrument I know best, thrust into my hands in high school, and never far from me since. Musicians and their instruments, in hand and mouth, mind and body: metaphors come quickly. It’s a life partner, and I write for it as I would write for another musician, ideally using my music to reveal the instrument’s own physical and spiritual character. Of course this is ventriliqual, the story I tell myself. In practical terms, the vocabulary of the music is contoured to the acoustic characteristics of the horn, rather than the other way around.
Grenadilla is a dense, strong dark wood that is often mistaken for ebony. It continues to grow in abundance on the African steppe. It is the primary wood for many instruments, including the bass clarinet, whose bottom joint alone is a single piece 30 inches in length. Big grenadilla, yearning for its living, rooted reality, with the orchestra providing the dreamscape.
Big Grenadilla was premiered in Carnegie's Zankel Hall. 60 years earlier, in that same building, Woody Herman premiered Stravinsky’s pocket-sized Ebony Concerto. Title aside, I claim no conscious connection to this masterpiece, but simply bow my head in homage. It is the Kilimanjaro of my own African landscape. We steppe-dwellers continue to gaze up in awe.