In 1992 New Jersey composer George Perle, then 75, produced his second piano concerto, a commission for Michael Boriskin. Boriskin premiered it in multiple performances with each of the four commissioning orchestras: the Utah Symphony; the Columbus, Ohio Symphony; the Fairfield Orchestra in Connecticut; and New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
"We gave it a very good send-off," Boriskin says in a telephone interview from his Westchester home.
Since its debut Boriskin has performed the concerto from time to time, and has recorded it with the Utah Symphony for Harmonium Mundi.
This spring composer Perle celebrated his 90th birthday, and to mark the anniversary Boriskin plays the concerto again. The performance, with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, takes place Sunday, November 13, in Richardson Auditorium. Music director Mark Laycock conducts. The program also includes music by Prokofiev and Sibelius.
Boriskin relishes the new insights that come from returning to the concerto. "It’s enormously rewarding," he says. "Every time I come back to it I’m in a different place as a performer and as a person. Hopefully, I’m constantly changing and looking at things in different ways. One’s comfort level and familiarity changes every time you return to a piece. It’s like seeing a friend. The relationship ripens. That’s true, not only for performers, but also for listeners."
Boriskin furnishes an informed account of the three-movement concerto. "The idea of an individual soloist against the massed forces of an orchestra can be treated two ways," he says. "The soloist can combat and confront the mass of instruments, or can work cooperatively with the orchestra. In this concerto there’s an ongoing dialogue. Soloist and orchestra comment on or support the other. One instrument starts an idea, then it’s picked up and embellished by another. The second concerto is a kind of wonderful musical pinball machine with ideas constantly shooting around you, mostly at breakneck speed.
"The first movement is energetic. One instrument chases another. The second movement is fragile and ethereal; it almost evaporates and dies out. The third movement breaks the mysterious intensity of the second movement. It interrupts and disturbs the mystery. Without much of a pause, it startles with its rocket-like movement."
This speedy movement presents a special challenge to the musician performing. "One of the main difficulties of the Concerto Number Two is moving around the instrument at top breakneck speed," Boriskin says. "There are a lot of rhythmic difficulties. The meter changes very often. Perle tried to create a sense of fluid rhythmic progression. There’s a constant sense of headlong impetuosity.
"Playing the concerto is a challenge," Boriskin says. "It’s fun. It’s the kind of piece that makes you want to better yourself as a performer. It makes you want to shoot a little further, run a little faster, jump a little higher, hit the ball a little harder." When I inquire into the precise ball he has in mind, Boriskin says, "It’s a generic ball. But tennis is an apt analogy. It’s back and forth, with constant change."
Born in New York City in 1950, Boriskin grew up mostly in Long Beach on Long Island. Family members in his parents’ generation were involved in music and the visual arts. "It was all around me as a boy," Boriskin says. His mother owned the Center Art Gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan, which opened in the 1930s and closed when she died in the late 1980s. "It was one of my playgrounds," Boriskin says. "Because of it I developed a passion for the visual arts."
Boriskin’s paternal relatives performed in the pop and theatrical music arena. His father started as a drummer in dance bands during the 1930s, when he was too young to be employed legally. "He grew a mustache to look older when he was 15, and kept it," Boriskin says. After his health declined, he worked at the Musicians Union until his death in the early 1980s.
Boriskin started studying piano at age six or seven. "I had a really effective, sensitive teacher," he remembers, "no one of note. She was the kind of person you want, encouraging and challenging at the same time." He enrolled in the Juilliard School’s pre-college division weekend courses when he was 12, and soon settled on spending his life in music.
"I had a fairly normal childhood and upbringing if you accept the fact that going into music is normal," Boriskin says. "It was unusual for a student in a public high school to choose music as a profession, and I was always regarded as a curiosity."
Boriskin studied at the Juilliard School and the City University of New York’s Aaron Copland School of Music. He made his debut at Carnegie’s Weill Hall in 1978. In 1997 he debuted with Lincoln Center’s Great Performer series in an unusual solo recital devoted solely to early works of Lou Harrison. Harrison, who was 80 in 1997, was one of the first composers to look toward Asia, rather than Europe, for musical inspiration. As Harrison became increasingly interested in alternative tuning for scales, he wrote gradually less for piano. Boriskin worked directly with him.
While Boriskin was at Juilliard he came across the work of Perle for the first time. "I knew Perle for about 15 years before he wrote the Second Piano Concerto," Boriskin says. "We had worked together intensively about half that time. The concerto was the culmination of our professional collaboration. It was the natural progression of things."
Boriskin calls Perle "one of this country’s most intriguing and exciting composers" and adds, "He has a towering reputation as a composer and a scholar." Boriskin makes no claim to any contribution to the composition of the concerto commissioned for him. "With a composer who works on the extraordinarily high level of George Perle, no input is necessary," he says. "You know beforehand the broad outlines of the piece you’re going to get. Perle had known my work for many years. I didn’t need to tell him anything."
Boriskin laments the infrequency with which he is asked to perform Perle’s Second Concerto. Among the several dozen concerts he gives each year, the Perle is programmed sparsely. Boriskin’s repertoire goes back as far as Rameau and Scarlatti, and includes Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, as well as contemporary works. In his experience, concert programmers tend to ignore contemporary works. "I’ve got a pretty big list of concertos that I offer conductors," he says. "Pieces that are new or a little out of the way don’t get requested very often."
Breaking down barriers between classical and contemporary music is one of Boriskin’s ideals. "Music is alone, among all the arts, in being so focused on the past," he says. "That focus arose in the 20th century. Throughout the 19th century, most of the music heard was new. It was much like our experience with theater, film, and art. Blockbuster shows of contemporary visual artists are nothing new. I can’t imagine a mainstream musical organization doing the same kind of thing highlighting a major contemporary composer. Having fostered this rerun mentality, we eliminate a sense of adventure and discovery in concerts. I don’t intend to talk against the great masterpieces. I want to increase the range of offerings on the concert stage and bring new, obscure works to audiences instead of relying on the same handful of certified masterpieces."
Boriskin fears that present-day concert programming fosters a couch potato musical mentality. "One would think that with the massive proliferation of CDs or downloads, we would be looking to try to offer concertgoers something they can’t readily get in their living room," he says. " We should give people reasons to put aside their coffee or wine, get off the sofa, and go to a concert hall. Limiting oneself to what can be consumed in the comfort of one’s own home is narrow and self-defeating."
Since 2003 Boriskin has been the administrative and artistic head of Copland House, the center for American music based at the restored, hilltop home of Aaron Copland, less than an hour north of New York City in Cortlandt Manor, New York. The institution offers residencies for composers, maintains a chamber music ensemble, offers public programs, and brings students into contact with American music.
Under the leadership of its artist in residence, Jon Magnussen, the Institute for Advanced Study has established links with Copland House. Boriskin and Princeton Symphony’s Mark Laycock join Robert Beaser in Wolfensohn Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study, Wednesday, November 9, at 4 p.m. for a panel discussion, "Great Music Programming (In Theory and Practice)." The Copland House Ensemble performs at the Institute on Friday, December 2, focusing on the music of American composer John Corigliano.
Boriskin advocates creating programs by mixing unfamiliar music with familiar pieces. "It enables you to hear new works in an established context. And by the same token, it enables you to hear old works in a different way," he says. "You want to be able to reassure and disturb at the same time. Realizing what is radical about the old works that we love while becoming aware of what’s traditional about new works. You want to approach an old work with the excitement of something that you just took delivery of yesterday, while you want to lavish the same kind of care on a brand new work that you would on a big sonata by Schumann.
"What should be done about this is fodder for many books," Boriskin says. "Concert music has been relegated to the margins of life today as a result of cultural and technological factors. We’ve dug ourselves into a deep, dark hole, and it will take a lot of doing to get out of it. An issue like this can’t be reduced to catchy soundbites. If you mentioned some of the top painters, authors, or creative artists, people would probably recognize a few names. That’s not the case in concert music. The names of top composers comparable to John Updike, Chuck Close, David Mamet, or Robert Rauschenberg are surprisingly little known. It’s a direct result of our not trafficking in their work. We need to reconnect composers with audiences."
Boriskin has written articles on the subject. Is he writing the needed book now? "No," he says. "I’d have to give up playing the piano."
Close to Home, Sunday, November 13, 4 p.m., Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Concert features Michael Boriskin on piano in a program including Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, Perle’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. $15 to $60. 609-497-0020.
Pre-concert lecture by Mark Miller, former producer/host of "Music Room" on WWFM, free to all ticket holders at 3 p.m.