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Anne-Marie Minhall writes that Michael Nyman's concerto always brings back haunting memories of the movie, The Piano.
Nobody expected that Jane Campion's 1993 film, The Piano would be such a huge critical and commercial success at the box office; it made $40.2 million against a relatively meagre $7 million budget. Of course there was a riveting story and those superb performances from Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, and Anna Paquin but for many - including myself - it was Michael Nyman's score that was the real star of the film.
What Nyman created was music that expressed Hunter's mute character of Ada and her changing moods, supplying through the piano parts all the dialogue that was missing. It contributed enormously to the film's overall atmosphere - and it was hard to imagine that the music might have a life of its own outside of the film; it was so perfectly integrated into the whole story.
Well the music did take off. It became a best-selling soundtrack album and a Classic FM favourite. Then, not too long after the film's release, Michael Nyman unveiled The Piano Concerto, based on the film's musical themes, which premiered on 26 September 1993 at the Festival de Lille.
What the composer was hoping for, by revisiting and reworking the film's themes, was that he could create a more coherent structure for the musical material, elaborate upon the texture for full orchestra and make the piano part more virtuosic. After all, a piano concerto for a star soloist is something quite different than the self-contained, almost impromptu pieces played by Ada in the film.
The concerto is in one long movement, divided into a number of phases. The first is derived from the Scottish folk song, "Bonny Winter's noo awa". The second is an original theme. The third is based on "Flowers of the Forest" and "Bonnie Jean" slowed down for cellos, trumpet, and violins. Then follows a harmonic phrase derived from material in the first phase, followed by reprises of "Bonny Winter" and "Flowers of the Forest."
It is certainly a virtuosic work and one that calls for repeated listening. Most of all, for me, it always takes me back to the haunting imagery of the film especially that vision of the grand piano on a New Zealand beach, waves lapping around its wooden legs.