10 Underrated Modern Piano Concertos
Don't be afraid—these are fun to hear
You rarely see the words fun and classical music in the same sentence.
That must be intentional. Just take a look at those musicians squeezed into their uncomfortable formal attire, all with pinched, somber expressions on their faces. And then you look at the audience, and see the exact same thing.
I must have missed the memo. Aren’t we allowed to enjoy this stuff?
But it gets worse when an unfamiliar modern work is on the program.
The fear in the crowd is palpable. Those folks in the expensive seats look like soldiers in a fox hole, hoping to dodge bullets and praying for survival. They ought to give out medals for bravery to the hardy souls who return after the intermission.
I’ve been there—you’ve been there too. Fun is out of the question, and other F words rear up to take its place.
But I’ve had enough of this. I’m now refusing to play along with this game.
There are so many fun and exciting works in the modern classical repertoire that never get performed. I have lots of them to recommend. (In a future article I plan to share a list of 50 living classical composers whose work you will enjoy hearing.)
But today I’m focusing just on piano concertos composed during the last 100 years. Here are 10 seldom heard works that really deserve a chance to delight audiences at the philharmonic.
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10 Underrated Modern Piano Concertos
Nikolai Kapustin: Piano Concerto No.2, Op.14
Nikolai Kapustin (1937-2020) should have been a hotshot jazz pianist in New York—but he had the bad luck to grow up in Horlivka, Ukraine under the domination of the Stalinist USSR. He developed into a fierce virtuoso and extravagant classical composer, but he also played jazzy music on the side in a restaurant. However Kapustin’s approach to jazz was quirky—probably because he learned in such an unlikely setting.
Yet this might have been a blessing, allowing him to create jazz-oriented classical works that sound unlike anything heard in the US. (Check out his etudes.) He deserves a prominent place in the classical repertoire, but instead gets treated as a peculiar footnote to 20th century music. If audiences were exposed to these flashy works, they would love them—but when will they get the chance?
Takashi Yoshimatsu: Piano Concerto ‘Memo Flora’, Op.67
This is the most serene piano concerto you will ever hear. Let other composers write epic works inspired by emperors and wars—Takashi Yoshimatsu looks instead to flowers for guidance. This is like a tranquil landscape transformed into soundscape.
Peggy Glanville-Hicks: Etruscan Concerto
There’s a lot of energy directed now towards celebrating women composers—so why don’t we hear more music by Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990)? This Australian composer wrote bright, exciting works that grab the audience at the very first hearing. Her music deserves a revival—it feels very contemporary. And you could make a movie from her life story. She was cross-dressing before it was fashionable, traveled the world and had love affairs and friendships with famous figures.
In her lifetime, she was known mostly as an opera composer, but nowadays even those works are rarely heard. Her piano music is bittersweet and heartfelt, but never shows up on the concert program. Keith Jarrett, who recorded Glanville-Hicks’ Etruscan Concerto, has championed her work, but not many others have joined him.
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