Commended - Abhisri Chaudhuri

RPS Young Classical Writers Prize 2023

Blind to the Barriers

On Errollyn Wallen's Piano Concerto

Sometimes you stumble by chance across one of those gemstones, soon to be one of your new favourite pieces of music. One of the most prevalent methods being by letting your phone spiral through a Spotify black hole. I came across one recently whilst mindlessly running on the treadmill in the gym. I was instantly caught off guard and my active listening ears automatically turned on. The very first phrase instantly brought back memories of my first love – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I slowed my run and reached out to grab my phone. It displayed, Piano Concerto: II. Languid Blues. The middle movement of a new work only released in March 2023 by composer Errollyn Wallen.

This filled me with excitement, a sense of triumphant revival of the era of symphonic jazz that was somewhat diminished when Gershwin died his tragically early death. And who better to do this than Errollyn Wallen? An inspirational woman and a pioneering musician of modern music today. Often music is grouped into Classical or Jazz, but Wallen is known to embrace the language of both idioms. It felt like the piece belonged in bandleader Paul Whiteman’s concert of 1924, ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’ at New York’s Aeolian Hall, a glorious day of breaking the boundaries of music where Gershwin’s Rhapsody was first premiered.

The movement opens with a smooth and soulful jazz bar piano solo. The music descends into a dimly lit 1920s piano bar in New Orleans. This gently gives way to a sultry muted trumpet whose melody perfectly encapsulates the languidity of the blues, always laying back on the beat before it melts into the luxuriously warm strings. Little did I realise this was the calm before the storm.

Though somewhat disjointed and other-worldly from the lyricism set up in the initial motifs, the addition of brass and woodwind seamlessly builds the drama. It is reminiscent of the rippling winds and ravishing rain of my home – Scotland. Coincidentally, it is there that Wallen retreats to her lighthouse to compose where she says the ‘the sea is very busy, so I should be too’. An explicitly thunderous bolt of lightning in the percussion cuts through the relentlessly rhythmic and agitated piano. After a chaotic outburst of jolting sounds comes a serene and hypnotic stillness of piano droplets and a lulling violin. And just before you settle, accented chords rise determinedly from within, marching towards a strong and wilful ending.

Wallen has created a truly fresh and daring approach to a concerto’s middle movement. The motto of Wallen’s group Ensemble X is, ‘We don’t break down barriers in music… we don’t see any’. Always free-spirited in her approach, she describes music as putting a microscope onto a moment or a feeling. That image will inevitably be different for everyone, whether it’s a 1920s jazz bar or mysterious lighthouse and raging sea. One thing I know for sure, it certainly took my mind off how tiring running on that treadmill was.