Seven Last Words
concerto for piano left hand and orchestra (2001)
large orchestra version
14 December 2001
Popejoy Concert Hall, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Gary Graffman, piano / New Mexico Symphony Orchestra / Guillermo Figueroa
3 August 2010
Joel Fan, piano / Maverick Chamber Ensemble / Alexander Platt
The seven movements are performed without interruption:
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)
The composer notes, 'I have been a bit reluctant to comment on Seven Last Words because the piece itself is devoted to the mystery of faith. And while listeners will naturally infer an influence here from Haydn's oratorio on the same theme, I have endeavored to let music express what perhaps cannot be truly conveyed by other means -- especially words. Moreover, although the concerto is an evocation of the meaning and power of the crucifixion of Christ, it is not intended as a link to a particular religious view.'
Through each of the seven continuous movements, the spirit, persona and voice of Christ is borne by the piano. In contrast, the divergent elements of the passion -- the voice of God, the presence of Mary, the crowds, and so on -- all of these are represented by the evolving tenor and timbre of the orchestra.
Commissioned by the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra in honor of Geoffrey Kalmus, the concerto was first performed 14-15 December 2001 by the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, Gary Graffman, soloist, Music Director Guillermo Figueroa conducting. It was first repeated by the Buffalo Philharmonic 1-2 February 2002 with Graffman as soloist, Music Director JoAnn Falletta conducting.
— Burning Sled Music, 2003
At the center of Friday evening's journey was Hagen's Seven Last Words, a piano concerto for the left hand. As Hagen, who turned 40 last month, said in introductory remarks, it arose out of 'a deep need to be involved with issues of faith.' It is, in effect, a meditation and commentary in seven parts on the seven last words of Jesus Christ on the cross. Its journey cuts deeper than any specific doctrine, exploring the passage from suffering into some form of acceptance and spiritual expansion that lies at the core of human experience.
Hagen brought considerable gifts to this ambitious effort. With a large body of work behind him that includes three symphonies and three operas, he knows his way around musically and theatrically. In the concerto a sharp ear for orchestral color underlined vivid emotional contrasts.The work began dramatically with brooding drum rolls and a stark interval of the second reaching up and down the piano like a soul in torment. The words 'woman behold your son; behold your mother' released a poignant melodic outpouring. The mood swithced to a jazz-inflected anger full of angular rhythms to convey the human in Christ crying out in abandonment. The brilliant climax of 'It is finished,' despite its tremendous energy, veered toward the bombastic. For the end, the fluttering strings and the solo seemed too predictable a heavenly close, though the transformation of the interval of the second from the opening passage into gentle, near-disembodied music, was lovely.
Pianist Gary Graffman, for whom the work was written, brought the same diamond-pointed clarity and emphatic expressiveness to the left-hand part that was reminiscent of his playing with both hands before a 1979 hand injury. The intensity of his focus along with Hagen's skillful exploitation of range and color on the piano made the solo writing thoroughly satisfying.
— Joanna Sheehy Hoover, The Albuquerque Journal, 16 December 2001
It helped that the composer introduced the piece. Likable and plain-spoken, he told us that the concerto, based on Jesus' seven last words, had been his response to a crisis of faith. Hagen stressed that we didn't have to listen to the piece from a religious perspective. But I did, and it was touching how the music revealed the biblical quotes. There was especially no mistaking the final line, 'Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.' The music, trembling and ethereal, seemed to float into the sky. Long known for his chiseled technique, Graffman played the piece's crystalline runs with every note clearly articulated. For a while, Hagen's piece took on a rhythm that reminded me of Dave Brubeck's 'Blue Rondo a la Turk,' and here, with the series of staccato beats, the pianist's strength really showed. At the piece's end, he dropped back, pretty much joining the orchestra and becoming one voice among many. I liked to think Hagen was implying becoming one with God (or the universe, if one wanted to leave religion out of this).
— Mary Kunz, The Buffalo News, 2 February 2002
Flanked by the bright rationality of Haydn and Mozart, Daron Hagen's dreamy and ecstatic "Seven Last Words of Christ" didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense at Sunday's Waukesha Symphony concert.
Note that "Seven Last Words" is not a choral piece. It is a piano concerto for left hand alone, in seven connected movements spanning about 30 minutes. On first hearing, it seemed a squirming mass of through-composed gesture and color with no discernible overarching structure. The attachment of each movement to a New Testament quotation ("Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do," "Today, thou shalt be with me in Paradise," "Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother," "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" "I thirst," "It is finished," "Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit") didn't help. Not in a million years would a listener connect this music with those phrases, if not directed by the concerto's title and program annotations.
For me, the words were distractions — I spent three movements searching in vain for such connections, and a couple more searching for some formal through-line. As it went on, the piece made me more and more skeptical, almost to the point of exasperation. Finally, I gave up rational engagement and resorted to simply taking in the fantastical riot of wailing Middle Eastern scales, rumblings from the bowels of the piano, chorale-fanfares from the brass, high harmonics in the violins, chants from the low strings, tubular bells clanging, bass drum banging, and much more.
A funny thing happened at the end, as the music evaporated into a mist of ethereal strings. I couldn't say why, as the architecture of the piece never became clear to me, but "Seven Last Words" suddenly came to feel dramatically and emotionally satisfying. Surely, that had something to do with the fiercely committed, commanding performance of soloist Joel Fan, conductor Alexander Platt and the members of the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra, who brought Hagen's gestures and colors to full shape and hue.
The mad religious ecstasy of "Seven Last Words" contrasted sharply with the earthy, sensible joys of Haydn's Symphony No. 104.
— Tom Strini, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, 28 January 2007