I first became acquainted with pianist Gayle Martin Henry at the Aspen Music Festival in the early 1970’s, and our friendship developed while we were both at Juilliard in the mid-70’s, and has continued to this day. An astonishing talent, she won the Juilliard concerto competition, and was the only American to make it to the finals of the Tchaikovsky competition in Russia that year. Since then, she has performed around the world, and has developed a passion for fortepiano as well as traditional and contemporary repertoire. We collaborated on a number of pieces, and I composed my piano concerto, The Passion of St. Cecilia, for her. She performed one of the movements with the Minnesota Orchestra, during my composition residency, and also performed the entire piece with the Denver Symphony, as well as here in Charlottesville. She later asked me to adapt it for solo piano, for a performance at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. When Ellen Waldo heard her perform the solo piano version in New York on a program presented by the Leschetizky Foundation, she determined to commission a new piece for Gayle.
I had a wonderful time discussing the project with Ellen. It turned out that she, Gayle and I were all fans of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I started browsing my complete collection of Dickinson’s poetry, and in the process decided to compose five short movements, each inspired by a line from one of Dickinson’s poems. The title of the piece and the first movement had a special relevance. At the time, I was suffering from an allergic response to a metal-on-metal hip replacement, which had led to fever, pain, and inability to lift my leg. It took quite some time for the doctors to figure out what was going on, and I was composing the piece during that period. As so often, composing did indeed provide a way ‘to keep the dark away.’ It turned out that this was just the prelude to a cascade of related medical issues, resulting in multiple surgeries and difficulties, but happily composing has continued to serve as both a distraction and a healing element.
While I had wanted to include the complete brief poems in the program notes, I was advised that there were copyright issues that prevented my doing so. Instead, I’ve included the poem numbers, and they are easily accessible online:
1. #850 To Keep the Dark Away
2. #326 A Glee Possesseth Me
3. #686 An Actual Suffering Strengthens
4. #1577 The Auroral Light
5. #500 Whose Spokes a Dizzy Music Makes
I was not able to attend the premiere on 4/16/11, at which actor Charles E. Gerber narrated the poems between movements, though it is available to view by visiting Vimeo. I was, however, able to hear Gayle perform it on 6/10/12 at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York, where she was again invited, this time to perform the entire annual concert, by the Leschetizky Foundation. Her virtuosic mastery and beautiful coloration were everywhere in evidence. Her program also included my Widdershins, as well as Debussy’s Estampes, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonatas, and selections from the Villa Lobos Brazilian Cycle.