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Modern Composers
January 9, 2001

Modern Composers[Music of] Nicholas Underhill. Piano Concerto; Piano Sonata; Passacaglia. Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Valek, conductor; Nicholas Underhill, piano. (MMC Recordings, CD # MMC2077) 1999.

Most composers play piano, but American composer Nicholas Underhill (b. 1953) is one of the few composers who are also accomplished concert pianists with successful careers as both composer and performer. Underhill has the additional distinction of being married to a well-known performer, the flutist (or flautist, if you prefer--though she hasn't played the flaut in years) Mary Kay Fink, with whom he regularly performs, and for whom he has written a number of works. The present album from MMC features Underhill as both composer and performer, playing three of his own works.

The Piano Concerto, written in 1993, is typical of Underhill's somewhat idiosyncratic compositional style. Like most composers of his generation, Underhill studied and experimented with the formal techniques of serialism. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he continues to use those techniques, though not in the rigorous, some would say simplistically mechanical, academic style. The first movement of the Concerto, for example, begins with the gradual unfolding of a serial pattern or row, with the rest of the movement "structured around" those serial patterns. The movement is technically atonal, but the structure of the various permutations of the original row revolve around a "tonal center" of the key of C. Though the composer shaped the first movement in a loose sonata form, the "internal repetitions and octatonic harmonic implications" of the serial technique move the piece well away from the classical notion of the sonata, leaving only the most essential elements of the internal structure -- like a house stripped of all but the structural frame, then redone with totally different materials and a new floor plan.

The second movement repeats some of the elements from the first movement, but uses them to try to capture the mood of a Stephen Crane poem that, in Underhill's words, "depicts a distant mountain peak that is forever unattainable." The interplay of piano and orchestra is a more prominent feature of this movement, with much of the mood of the section, particularly toward the end, set by the dark, faintly menacing voices of the strings and brass.

The third and final movement, marked "jazzy," also reworks elements from the first movement, this time in rondo form. The jazziness of the section is expressed in "a considerable amount of percussion and syncopated rhythms for both tutti and soloist." After an extended piano cadenza, the movement gathers energy and pace as it moves quickly to a close that the composer describes as "a triumphant resolution."

The newest piece on the album is the Piano Sonata from 1996, a work that more closely follows traditional form and techniques, but overlaid with Underhill's variations of atonal techniques. As one would expect from a pianist-composer, both the Concerto and the Sonata contain some virtuosic flourishes for soloist, using an unusually wide range of the instrument. The three works on the album are fine examples of the blending of old and new techniques by a composer in tune with traditional and contemporary sensibilities.

You can hear Nicholas Underhill's Piano Concerto, performed by the composer, on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, January 11 at 7:00 as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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