A suite for solo piano inspired by paintings by John Singer Sargent.

piano solo / 17 min.

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Program Note

When in 2013 Yoonie Han invited me to compose a short piece for her, I thought of her ravishing recording of Granados’ Goyescas and her love of Spanish music and art. John Singer Sargent’s painting El Jaleo – a stunning take on flamenco music and dance – soon suggested itself to me as a point of departure. After my musical rendering of that work proved successful in performance, I chanced upon Sargent’s Fumée d’Ambre-Gris in the Clark Institute in Williamstown, and realized it would make a splendid companion piece. Feeling a need to complete a triptych, I selected from the vast catalogue of Sargent’s work a third powerful female image – Miss Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth.   These three iconic pictures are not society portraits, of which Sargent did so many, but archetypes rendered with the most extravagant technique, full of mystery and drama.

In El Jaleo (2013) I have tried to evoke the cultivation, the ornament, the vocal style, and the measured intensification of flamenco performance. The piece alternates between graceful dance and hypnotic song, tracing a gradual acceleration and crescendo to the frenetic climax, el jaleo, captured in the painting.

The figure in Fumée d’Ambre-Gris (2015) is by contrast motionless and contemplative. In a North African setting, dressed in mysterious layers and adornments, she inhales incense and her eyes gaze into the space before her. The exotic, earthy fragrance of ambergris; her meditative stillness; and also Sargent’s virtuosic treatment of shades of white in light and shadow – all contributed to my musical reaction to this great work.

Miss Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (2017) – a tribute to both a great actress and a great drama – pictures the character rapt in a vision of violence and power. In composing my version, I drew as much inspiration from famous speeches of this character, as from the rich colors and the mad eyes of the painting.   Incantation, scorn, visions of murder and of grandeur all vie for primacy.