Christopher Theofanidis
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A Prankster on the Piano Keys

An interview with composer Christopher Theofanidis, who was commissioned to write the seven-minute Birichino for the Van Cliburn Competition.

published Saturday, June 1, 2013

Composer Christopher Theofanidis teaches at Yale, and we imagine the shelves in his Connecticut home must be sagging from the awards he’s brought home: the International Masterprize (from the Barbican in London), the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, six ASCAP Gould Prizes, and…you get the idea. He was born in Dallas, raised in Houston and is the latest in a long and distinguished company of composers to write a commissioned work for the Van Cliburn Competition. (Some of the others: John Corigliano, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom.) Birichino (pronounced beer-a-KEE-no) is a seven-minute solo piano piece, and will be played in the next few days by all 12 of the Cliburn semifinalists. 

TheaterJones asked Theofanidis (pronounced Thee-oh-fah-NEE-dis) to sit down with us after he’d heard two competitors play his piece on the first afternoon of the semifinals.


TheaterJones: I’ve heard it twice now—very fun—and both very different renditions. What’s your reaction to hearing Birichino in performance? 

Christopher Theofanidis: Oh, I’m enjoying it. You can really hear creative decisions being made along the way, especially about character, which is the most important aspect of this to me—where to put the spaces, where to linger in the silences for comic effect, things like that. One of the things I put in that I think people are taking a little bit seriously is that there’s a laughing motive which opens the piece—you know [he laughs down the scales] “Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha”….and it isn’t to be played like it’s something very dissonant and strident. I’m waiting for someone to hit that one exactly right. But it’s really neat to hear everyone’s articulations and pedaling and approach to some of the sounds. The first two performances were very different indeed. Claire’s [Huangci] was so technically clean, and I could hear all these little machinations; and I really felt like Nikita’s [Mndoyants] had a lot of articulations and decisions that brought a lot of character to it.


I looked up the Italian word “birichino”; it means a scamp, an imp, a mischievous little kid. You translate it as “prankster”—which is even better. So you had the image of the scampering little prankster in your head as you wrote? 

Yes, exactly. There are a lot of precedents for that: Till Eulenspiegel, and yes, also the Scarbo of Gaspard de la nuit [played several times during the Cliburn preliminaries]. I’m such a huge fan; Ravel is one of my absolute all-time heroes; I’m thinking especially of his ability to create warmth of sound and brilliance of character.


Our music critic Gregory Isaacs says this piece is full of tone clusters, groups of adjoining keys—I’m not a pianist!—struck together. 

The tone clusters are part of the laughing effect, intended to be slightly like a good belly laugh. But as I said, people see tone clusters and think they call for a jarring, strident gesture, and that’s not at all what it’s supposed to be.


More of a chuckle going down the keyboard, then? 

Exactly. And there are moments in the piece where there’s a kind of scurrying motive that runs all over the place, as if at one point the pianist in the music is supposed to give up and just laugh—ah, ha, ha—and then OK, let’s move on. So there are those kind of things sprinkled through the piece.


In Rainbow Body [his much-performed orchestral work], you gave the orchestra members permission to vocalize or sing out at certain points in the piece. Would that be OK for Birichino, too? 

You know, it’s funny you mention that. This morning, I gave a talk over at TCU [at PianoTexas], and I was demonstrating exactly that—laughing out loud with the music, in time, to show that it actually comes from a real, physical laughter place. I wouldn’t mind that at all; I would love it if somebody really went for it. Of course, this is a competition, and people are, naturally, physically reserved in such a high-pressure situation—but part of my intention was to see how free they could get with that aspect of the piece, to have a little fun.


You write pieces of all sizes: full orchestral works, choral and opera works, and pieces for many different instrument combinations—two flutes, piano and strings. Have you written for a solo piano? 

I’ve written only two solo piano pieces before this one. I’ve written a piano concerto, and probably a dozen or more pieces with a very strong piano part—piano quintets, for instance. The piano is my first instrument, and doing this is a pleasure for me, because it’s one of the times that I really write at the piano.


Your music seems to cross a lot of musical boundaries: it’s traditional and modern, melodic and dissonant. 

I think of my music almost in the same way as my genetic identity: my father was from Greece, my mother is German-Irish from Pennsylvania, I grew up inTexas and am just kind of a mutt in a sense. I’ve had all of these influences, personally and also musically. I don’t really think about those things very consciously [how his music is labeled or defined]; I suppose maybe other people can see it more clearly than I can.


Did you look back at some of the other works that were written for the Cliburn? 

I knew the [John] Corigliano piece and had heard Mason Bates’ piece, a couple of others here and there. I remembered that John, who is a friend of mine, told me he wanted to find something that would be a creative and interpretive challenge to the players. That stuck with me, particularly from the standpoint of this piece, which calls for a really sharp sense of timing. I’m very curious to see how it opens up over the next few days.


What happens to pieces like Birichino that are written for an occasion?  Do you have hopes for its future life? 

Ideally, what will happen is I will do a recording with somebody, with my own personal timing, and then hopefully it will be done by others. The interesting thing is that already there have been a gazillion orders for this piece from my publisher; he keeps writing me and asking “When can we finally release it?” There was a big spurt [of orders] on the front end as soon as it was announced, and then also today. So there’s a neat spike that’s happening from all this.


Did the Cliburn give you any set requirements for the work? 

Just length, really. They said we’d like it about eight minutes—not shorter than seven, or longer than 10. Other than that, they just said do what you want. I wrote the piece in the fall, and they released it to the performers on March 15, so the players have had it for two months.


You dedicate Birichino in part to your daughter Isabella, who you call “the original little prankster.” Is she the “imp” on the piano keys? 

[laughing] Yes, that’s her—Isabella is seven, and has taken up the violin, but she’s always been mesmerized watching me play the piano. She has the same fascination as I do with what falls under the fingers—hers on the violin, mine on the piano.


◊ You can also read a story about Christopher Theofanidis from Bill Zeeble at KERA, here, on the website Art&Seek, which is a content partner with TheaterJones for the Cliburn competition. Thanks For Reading

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A Prankster on the Piano Keys
An interview with composer Christopher Theofanidis, who was commissioned to write the seven-minute Birichino for the Van Cliburn Competition.
by Jan Farrington

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