Piano Quintet: “Live Oaks”

  • September 9, 2011
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Commissioned: Da Camera of Houston

Premiere: September 23, 2011; Da Camera of Houston, Houston; Sarah Rothenberg, piano; Brentano String Quartet

Duration: 25’



Commissioned by Da Camera of Houston, Picker’s latest work had its first performance there three weeks ago, performed by tonight’s musicians.


Playing for around twenty-five minutes through six movements, the quintet begins with an allegro based on the restless figure – five quick notes, up and down – introduced at once by the first violin. This figure can rotate and unfold, or it can be curtailed, and both these things are happening right away, in what begins to develop as a high flight for violins and viola. When the piano enters, it is together with the cello, playing pizzicato, in a syncopated dance entirely different in register and character. This music progressively infiltrates the ensemble, but at the end the piano is joining the first violin, leaving the others silent.


Luminous and lyrical, the second movement’s passionate assertions keep being cut off and rephrased, the expressive temperature steadily rising until, without a break, the third movement takes over, bringing back the odd couple of cello and piano. Once again, there is no pause before the fourth movement, which includes sustained rhythmic intricacy from the piano, often suggesting jazz in the background as the instrument plays against and within the strings’ slow-moving harmony.


After this comes a scherzo with a surprise in its tail, and then a slow finale that is almost purely diatonic, though in a way that is distinctively Picker’s, at once reflective and confident.


The composer himself says more about the piece in his note to the score:


“We all grew up on the monumental piano quintets of the past – such thrilling music. But as I began to write a piano quintet myself, ‘the way in’ eluded me. I kept thinking, a piano and a string quartet need each other like a hole in the head. Why combine them anyway? I looked to the masters for inspiration and along the way became convinced that even they had grappled with this question. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Schumann, Brahms, Dvorák, Franck, Elgar, Shostakovich and Carter had each written only one. Finding my own answer was difficult and took a long time. When the answer finally came - it gave me great joy. My Piano Quintet reflects that joy as no other piece I’ve ever written has done.”

The final piece of the evening, a new Piano Quintet (“Live Oaks”) commissioned by the pianist Sarah Rothenberg for Da Camera and introduced in Houston in September, showed that the evocative skills Mr. Picker honed in opera carry over to the concert stage. From birdlike twitters among the violins and piano, the work moves through six deftly characterized movements of surging energy, jazzy vivacity and airy open-chord expanse.


Handsomely performed by Ms. Rothenberg and the Brentano String Quartet, the quintet conveyed a stage-worthy sensation of tension and release.


– Steve Smith, The New York Times



“There is a strong American consciousness in Picker's work, evoking aural illustrations of the frontier experience. The composer describes the work as a musical drama with the piano taking center stage. The quintet opens with clear representational imagery, with bird chirps emerging from call-and-response patterns in the strings, but then morphs into almost caricature-like abstract sketches with descending lines and rhythmically complex fragments, often containing a healthy dash of humor.”


– CultureMap (Houston)

For piano quintet