“Piccolo players love me.” That’s not an idle boast from composer Ken Benshoof. Best known for his incidental music and chamber works, especially his eight commissions for the famed Kronos Quartet, Benshoof also happens to have an unusual affinity for the piccolo. With three previous pieces featuring the instrument in his catalog, the Seattle-based composer recently added a fourth. “The big mystery is: How did that happen?” he said with a chuckle. “I’m still scratching my head. For a lot of years, it was a joke around the house that I was famous worldwide among piccolo players.”
Music Director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform Benshoof’s most ambitious work featuring the instrument, the Concerto in Three Movements for Piccolo and Orchestra, during concerts June 13-15. Also on the program will be the most famous classical solo showpiece for the instrument: Antonio Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C Major, RV 444. Featured as soloist in both will be Jennifer Gunn, the orchestra’s own piccolo player, and one of this country’s most respected exponents.
Commissioned by the National Flute Association, the concerto received its premiere in 2016 during the group’s annual convention in San Diego, with conductor Ransom Wilson (also a flutist) and the Pacific Coast Chamber Orchestra. The work has been performed one subsequent time, but the CSO concerts will provide its most prominent hearing to date. Its inclusion on this week’s program came about through the efforts of Gunn, the original soloist for whom the piece was written.
The flute association chose Benshoof for its commission in part due to his previous piccolo works: two featuring the instrument with piano and a quartet with the rare instrumentation of piccolo, violin, viola and cello. The often overlooked instrument, an octave higher than a regular flute, is probably best known for its extended solo in John Philip Sousa’s march The Stars and Stripes Forever.
When Benshoof began contemplating his concerto, he thought it might be a good idea to highlight other instruments in a similar register, such as the piccolo trumpet. But he quickly realized that they would vie too much for attention, and he pared down the accompanying orchestration, so the piccolo was very clearly in the spotlight. “I made this syntactic rule: Piccolo gets the first word, piccolo gets the last word,” he said. “And I applied it as much as possible at every level in the architecture of the piece.”
The challenge was to take full advantage of the piccolo’s expressive range, which is about two octaves. Although the instrument is best known for its piercing high notes, it also has an appealing lower register as well. “It’s kind of throaty if there aren’t any flutes around to remind you what really throaty is,” he said. “So I don’t have any flutes in the orchestra.”
The key to showcasing the piccolo is to ensure there are suitable instruments backing it up. “The emotional backdrops of the piece have to be set so that peculiar quality of the piccolo is entirely appropriate for telling whatever the story is,” he said. Double reeds, particularly the “tender qualities” of the oboe, are quite compatible with the lower register of the piccolo yet tonally different, so the concerto includes a quartet of double reeds.
Benshoof also added four French horns to the orchestration, because he wanted the warmth that they bring to the sound, as well as a sense of what he called a “sense of filling the middle.” “The piccolo can feel very small despite the fact that it can be loud, so a sense of largeness must be created in other areas. The horns do that and the strings do that well if you are just using them for fill,” he said. Among the instruments omitted are clarinets and high brass.
The work has three movements. The first has an improvisatory feel, beginning and ending with the solo piccolo. It is followed by a sentimental second movement and a peppier third movement that is a kind of a dance. “There is very little angst in the work,” he said. “There are no mountains to climb, no battles to be won. It tries to be thoughtful, accepting of the surprises it finds along the way.”
Its main “story line” — something that is important to Benshoof — is a lone piccolo player, who gradually meets up with other instruments until it and the bassoon enjoy what the composer calls the “ultimate token of friendship” in the second movement as they perform a “little bend together.” “It’s not the orgasmic kind of climax, but it’s incredibly tender,” he said. During the concerto’s premiere, he noticed one of his friends dabbing a tear after that moment.
“I find this piece really interesting, because the story line seems to be more about social interaction and less about fear and anger, hope and joy and sex and not,” he said. “Maybe it’s partly because I’m now in my 80s.”