Bernard Rands began playing piano at age 5. When he was 10, he started working with a new teacher who told his young student to carry a book of manuscript paper with him. At the end of a lesson, after Rands had played the pieces he’d learned and they’d worked on exercises, the teacher would write out a melody — it could have been a popular tune, or the melody of a Bach chorale. Rands’s job would be to harmonize that melody before his next lesson. Another week the teacher might write down a series of a dozen or so chords, the assignment being to turn them into a composition. To this point, Rands had had no instruction in music theory; his farsighted teacher simply wanted to unlock his mind to the experience of musical creation.
“Can you imagine how many piano teachers on the planet would actually engage a young child that way?” Rands said by phone recently from his home in downtown Chicago. “That man was unique, and why I’m talking to you today. Having spent 70 years of my life pursuing this is directly because of that man.”
The “this” that Rands has been pursuing is an aesthetic ideal that has made him one of the foremost composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Born in England, Rands, who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this month, has a lengthy list of accomplishments that includes the Pulitzer Prize for Music, numerous residencies, and 16 years on the faculty of Harvard University. Now retired from teaching, he lives in Chicago with his wife, the composer Augusta Read Thomas.
His newest work was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and composed for pianist Jonathan Biss. His choice of title was deliberate: “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” rather than simply “Piano Concerto,” to emphasize the coequality between the two partners. It will be premiered in concerts beginning on Thursday under the baton of Robert Spano, along with music by Rachmaninoff and Debussy.
Rands’s compositions are rooted in those early encounters with melody and harmony — as he put it, “I have grown up with a belief in the vernacular, as such.” They are elegant yet meticulously structured, bringing tonal and nontonal elements into a fusion that is firmly enough based in musical tradition to be inviting, yet unpredictable enough in the deployment of those tools to convey a sense of modernity.
The partnership with Biss began when the latter premiered Rands’s Three Pieces for Piano in 2010. “He’s incredibly sensitive, perceptive . . . [with] a profound knowledge, not only of music but of many other things,” the composer said of Biss. Most important was an elusive quality for which Rands was unafraid to use the term “spirituality.”
“It’s not just dashing off the notes in a brilliant manner, but bringing out something that not even the composer can put there,” he explained. “[He or she] can only provide through notation the opportunity for it to exist. And Jonathan has this capacity to understand what that opportunity is. And therefore, from his wealth of knowledge of many, many things, he’s able to bring an interpretive quality that’s just rare, and makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and it makes me feel, this is where I want to be.”
Those characteristics are coded into the new piece, which shares the traditional concerto’s three-movement form but eschews the 19th-century model of a clash between soloist and orchestra. Rands also shies away from the musical logic of buildup, climax, and denouement from those works. Its first movement generates its material from a small musical cell at the piece’s opening, something which may not be apparent on first hearing.
“I’ve been fascinated with . . . making music which, like Debussy, like much of Ravel and Stravinsky, may seem to the listener for the first time to be a series of non sequiturs. And yet they are all served from an initial idea that is designed to engage the listener’s ear from the very first sound. Everything is referring back to it, but not in an order that you could predict.” The middle, slow movement quotes from one of the Three Pieces, and the last movement ends, Rands said, “almost in a whisper.”
“It’s a very reserved work,” he continued. “It doesn’t pound the piano. Without wanting to invite comparisons, it’s almost Mozartian. It’s not Brahms or Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky, those big concerti. It’s very introspective and introverted in many ways.”
“[One] thing which really strikes me about the concerto,” Biss wrote in an e-mail, “is that while it uses a fairly huge orchestra — and does so very effectively — it finds a lightness and humor in the concerto form, which I don’t always associate with big, late-19th-, early-20th-century warhorses. It’s got a lot of activity, but not a lot of bluster, which is something I love about it.”
Asked what he found special about Rands’s music more generally, he wrote, “I think the contemporary composers I relate to are a pretty diverse bunch, but I realized recently that one thing they have in common is that they manage to have a real connection to the past without being derivative. When I first met Bernard, he mentioned Schumann, Ravel, and Scriabin as composers he loves, and I can hear all of them in his music, but at the same time, he doesn’t sound like anything other than himself.”
Rands himself said something similar during a discussion of matters relating to influence, heritage, and the singularity of one’s own voice. “I don’t mean to be bold, but I don’t think my music sounds like anybody else,” he said with considerable modesty. “I’ve absorbed a number of influences. And I think it’s perfectly possible to say, ‘This composer comes from a certain lineage.’ But,” and here he paused, then continued, “I don’t know anything else like it.”