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Pioneering spirit

American composer Stephen Montague was so unhappy with his first piano concerto, he `took it out behind the barn and shot it'. Here's hoping he won't need to do the same the second time around. By Stephen Johnson
It isn't hard to think of examples of the Great American Symphony. There's Copland's Third, with its ringing "Common Man" fanfares. There's Roy Harris's Third: Sibelius on the prairie, with whirling lasso and 10- gallon hat. There's Charles Ives's Fourth: Salvationist hymns and marching bands storming Heaven. But the Great American Piano Concerto? There's the Gershwin, of course, but after that ... No, for a composer like the American-born Stephen Montague, wanting to explore his musical roots in concerto form, there are remarkably few models. Still, his new Piano Concerto, premiered by Rolf Hind at the Proms next Tuesday, declares its nationality in the titles of its three movements: "I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel", "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" and "He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat" - all lines from American hymns, stirring songs of religious struggle, about as un-Anglican as one could imagine.

This rich American musical vernacular has always been with him, but it wasn't until recently that Stephen Montague began to draw on it, at least as extensively as in the new Concerto. So what has happened? "I first came to Europe in 1972 to study in Warsaw. That was during the Vietnam war. I only had to go into a bar on the Continent and open my mouth and somebody would hold me personally responsible for Vietnam. Here I was, intensely involved in the anti-war movement, and yet ... It inhibited me a lot. I felt so apologetic about being American, and that meant musically too. Over the years things have changed, and I've been reassessing my American roots, thinking of my early life in West Virginia, in little redneck towns like Tallahassee, Florida, where I played in marching bands and went on church camps and listened to my dad playing in chapel. I feel like the legitimate heir to this kind of Americana. That's what I want to celebrate in the Concerto."

The titles of the three movements aren't just recognisably national, they burn with that religious zeal we seem to be so poor at imitating here - at least in the Anglo-Saxon parts of this island. Is there a religious intention too? "Well, I don't go to church now. But I was in Austin, Texas, not long ago, and I went to hear a black Pentecostal service and it was just sensational. It was `Be Healed Brother!' and a-yellin' and a-hoopin' and a-hollerin' and the singing and the tambourines! I look back and I find religion has been a real part of me. I get out the old family hymnal and play `Rock of Ages' and the tears really do come to my eyes. It's working its way out a lot now into what I do. It's something I want to bring out and share."

But that bringing out and sharing - very American, very individual-centred, one might say - is balanced by respect for tradition. In broad terms, this is a traditionally structured piano concerto: three movements, on the familiar fast-slow-fast pattern. "I think you'd have to be completely insensitive not to realise that there are a few people who did a rather good job in this form before - and they can help. One thing that often bothers me about hearing a contemporary piece is not really knowing how or why one section moves to the next. One of the reasons it takes me so long to feel I've finished a piece - often it's not till long after the premiere - is that I feel I need to sit back and hear it, not as the composer but as a member of the audience. Hence the three movements on the traditional plan. But as for what's in those movements... In the second, I wanted to create the effect of a revivalist meeting. The pianist plays a very beautiful hymn tune, `Were you there', but he has to play it as a Baptist revival player might. And I want the different groups in the orchestra to sound ragged and not together. I'm counting on the piano being knocked out of tune in the first movement - Rolf Hind is instructed to stand up at the end to play the last double-forearm cluster as hard as possible. But just in case the piano stays in tune, we've got a small microphone with flange unit to give that tinny effect. It's risky. Maybe I'll hate what it sounds like, but it's an idea."

There's something rather wonderful about the way Montague takes risks - real risks. Not everything he tries comes off, but the excitement as you wait to find out can enliven many an otherwise dull new music programme. And when it does work - as in the recently recorded Snakebite (on the ASV label) - there's a sense that Montague's spirit of adventure has infected the musicians too. Doesn't he ever feel scared? "Oh, God, it's scary to write a piece every time. You're exposing something of yourself to the public which the public just may not find very interesting. You're saying, `This is the best I can do', and if they say, `Thanks, but no thanks,' you can find that very deflating, very hurtful. And if you aren't even sure it's going to work to start with... The Piano Concerto makes use of a distant trumpet, and composers just love to tell me about how this sort of thing can go wrong in the Albert Hall - you can't hear it, or timing and tuning go wrong." I can remember some wonderful distance effects in the Albert Hall, and in premieres too. "Well, this is what I like to hear, so keep saying it! I'm determined to make this damn thing work. The trouble is, I've only got one morning rehearsal to find out."

What happens, I ask, when a piece goes seriously wrong - as, apparently, was the case with an earlier piano concerto, which seems to have disappeared from the Montague catalogue. "It was my first attempt. I started to revise it after the first performance, and then I just decided to take it out behind the barn and shoot it. Some ideas have stuck with me and turned up again in modified forms, but basically the new Concerto is just that, a new piece. But I'm an experienced composer now. I've always had a wide interest in how effects are achieved - I'm not just blundering about. And I'm a pianist who's had to struggle with other composers' ideas, and that's helped me think about some of the really practical things which no one who ever gave me a score thought about. There are some passages in the Piano Concerto which sound really devilish. Like the clusters. What I've done is started to write fast descending clusters then just a descending line ad libitum - you know, make it sound as ferocious as you want to, don't let the notes frighten you! Things like that are kinda fun. It's all a big experiment. I'm looking forward to that first rehearsal to see how it all sounds." And perhaps not making too many changes? "I don't know, but I'm hoping I won't need the pistol this time".

Stephen Montague's Piano Concerto is premiered at the Proms on Tuesday, 10pm Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212), broadcast live on BBC Radio 3