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Composed: 1961
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (antique cymbal, bass drum, castanets, orchestra bells, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam tams, tambourine, tenor drum, tom toms, triangle, xylophone), harp, celesta, strings, and solo piano
First LA Phil performance: February 7, 1974, Sidney Harth conducting, with soloist Jerome Lowenthal

Ginastera composed brilliantly in most genres – concertos, songs, string quartets, piano sonatas, and a number of film scores – but is best known for his early ballets Panambí and Estancia and the operas Don Rodrigo, Bomarzo, and Beatrix Cenci. Argentine folk songs and dances inspired and informed much of his music, whether in direct reference or in stylistic allusion. Later in his career he began to incorporate 12-tone techniques and avant-garde procedures into his music, ultimately reaching a synthesis of traditional and post-serial elements.

One of his early 12-tone, neo-expressionist works was the Piano Concerto No. 1, written in 1961 and premiered at the Second InterAmerican Music Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1961, along with his Cantata para América Mágica for soprano and percussion orchestra. (It was commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation at the Library of Congress and dedicated to the memory of Koussevitzky and his wife Natalie.) Of this period in his music, Ginastera wrote: “There are no more folk melodic or rhythmic cells, nor is there any symbolism. There are, however, constant Argentine elements, such as strong, obsessive rhythms and meditative adagios suggesting the quietness of the Pampas; magic, mysterious sounds reminding us of the cryptic nature of the country.”

This was also the time when Ginastera began his opera projects, and his obsession with dramatic impulses is reflected in his concurrent interest in concerto writing in the last decades of his life: two piano concertos, two cello concertos, and one each for violin and harp. The dramatic character of the First Piano Concerto is immediately evident – the soloist’s entrance is marked “tutte forza, con bravura” and the opening movement is basically an accompanied cadenza, followed by ten phantasmagorical variations (with markings such as “misterioso” and “irrealmente”) and a coda.

The Scherzo allucinante (hallucinatory scherzo) is as enchanted by the extreme soft side of the dynamic spectrum as the cadenza was by the fortissimo side, full of ghostly piping and rappings in the orchestra and feathery patterned passage work for the soloist. Beginning with a solo viola incantation, the Adagissimo is one of those mysterious meditations that Ginastera mentioned, though it does rise to an impassioned climax. The concluding Toccata concertata is a manic metrical game, almost non-stop but for a brief breath-catching lull, that rides rhythm to a ferocious final catharsis.

— John Henken