There's little sitting room in Peter Allen's office on the fifth floor of the Dalhousie Arts Centre. The piano, a Yamaha C7, takes up most of the space, pinning desk with computer and a couple of chairs against the near wall.
Besides teaching piano in Dalhousie's music program, the Halifax-born-and-raised Allen is an accomplished composer and performer facing a test of his artistic resolve.
On Thursday, September 25, Allen takes to the stage to perform his Hurricane Juan Concerto with a beefed-up (adding some 20 extra players to the usual complement of 37) Symphony Nova Scotia---a world premiere to open the orchestra's 25th anniversary season. For about 25 minutes, from his perch on the bench before a Yamaha nine-foot, he'll summon what CBC Radio music producer Jeff Reilly, who commissioned the piece, calls Allen's "deep pools of personal strength. They will come to bear on this in a most awesome manner."
That's a hefty endorsement. And helpful, too, since the concerto's unveiling is being recorded for national broadcast a few days later on CBC Radio Two's Sunday Afternoon in Concert, on Sunday, September 28---the fifth anniversary of the storm.
Allen feels pressure to deliver on two distinct stages: Composition and performance. He's been asked to create and play something that both thrills and tells a universal or relatable story of spectacle and substance.
A few years back, Allen spoke informally to Adrian Hoffman, Reilly's predecessor at CBC Radio Two, about doing a commission of a significant piece for the broadcaster, which had previously commissioned his 2001 work, Mar Atlantico for Orchestra. Reilly kept the idea alive at CBC, while SNS conductor and musical director Bernhard Gueller started encouraging Allen to write a piano concerto.
But since CBC was paying the bulk of the commission, the network wanted something more than "just a piano concerto," says Allen in his Dalhousie studio, shortly after teaching a class. In initial meetings about 18 months ago, he recalls being told, "It has to have a theme, a subject. So I said, 'Alright, alright, alright.'"
All Allen had to do was tell them what he wanted to write about, its theme, then he pretty much had most of last year to get it down. But he immediately hit an obstacle: "I couldn't come up with anything. I thought and I thought and I thought," Allen admits, tension and frustration in his voice. "It got down to where it was a half-hour before I was supposed to have a meeting with Jeff Reilly about what my great idea was and I had nothing. I said to my wife Patty, 'What am I going to tell him?'"
Patricia Creighton, a flutist and a 25-year member of SNS, watched her husband's brainstorming, sympathetic and empathetic to the emotional and intellectual malaise that occasionally comes with creativity. She's a soloist, chamber musician and part-time faculty member at Acadia University and has recorded several albums herself.
"It was coming down to crunch time. CBC wanted a theme. He was racking his brains and racking his brains," Creighton says by phone. "He couldn't really come up with anything. He wasn't really that keen on making a theme because he just wanted to compose."
But the message, the crux of the commission, was clear. As Reilly says, "I really wanted it to be tied to a specific event. As the producer, the guy commissioning it and paying the bills, I wanted something more than a composition for composition's sake."
Allen recalls how easily his wife solved the first major snag, a sense of relief and thankfulness returning to his voice. "So Patty suggests, off the top of her head, 'You know what, why don't you do it on the hurricane?' It just made perfect sense," he says, dismissing any idea he grabbed hold of the idea out of desperation.
"We're just sitting around and having coffee in the morning," remembers Creighton. "Actually I was looking out the window, right, and it was a sunny, blustery day and I remember seeing this tree across the street, which had been damaged from both storms and on that blustery day I saw a branch snap off the tree. And I thought, 'Oh, Hurricane Juan!'"
She laughs, recalling how the Chronicle Herald's commemorative book on Hurricane Juan sat out in plain view the whole time. She heard "the cracking of the branch breaking...and it just popped into my head."
Hearing this scenario, Reilly chuckles: "That's so funny. I thought the idea came from me." Regardless, he says, the idea resonated for him and his CBC bosses. "The reason I thought of Hurricane Juan, or liked the idea, was that it was something we could all relate to, that we all experienced."
And, Reilly adds, the immensity and universality of the storm---the build-up, unleashing and the aftermath---and its effect on people could be powerfully communicated by classical music. "That can very much be part of the ceremony of a symphony orchestra concert: commemorating and reflecting on bigger events."
If you were here when Hurricane Juan cut its path through Halifax and the province, you can relive certain moments and remember how the storm cut a swath in your city and psyche.
For his part, Reilly, who plays clarinet in Sanctuary among other gigs, kept an eye on his property. "I was outside trying to save my shed from blowing over," he says, "one of those plastic garden sheds. The thing ended up blowing down the hill behind my house."
Sometimes, commitments put you in the direct line of the storm or off its trajectory, as in Peter Allen's case. He wasn't here for Hurricane Juan (or White Juan, for that matter). Instead he was in St. John, performing with another orchestra, during a residency for UNB Fredericton. "I was actually hoping nobody would ever ask me that," Allen says, smiling thinly. But, of course, that's what people do: They ask, "Where were you when...?" Or, "Did this happen on your street?" And so on.
Allen came home two days after. The couple lost power for six days, but their small but well-made house--- just below Needham Hill in the north end---lost only a few shingles from the storm. "I've been around here long enough to deal with different storms and weather," he says, adding he soaked up news articles, books and talked to as many people as he could, notably his wife, who was in Halifax for the hurricane.
Creighton recounted for Allen the narrative arc of the storm, from the official cautions and the "real excitement in the air" that marked the lead-up. She bought the requisite and recommended candles, water, food, firewood and other supplies and made sure the barbecue was in working order. Then she simply waited, almost welcoming the storm; unafraid because she grew up in Kitchener, in southwestern Ontario, with a family cottage north of Huntsville. "I like weather, but my parents trained us to take it seriously. There were a lot of lightning storms" and losing power for stretches of time was common.
Though she felt the winds pick up around 8pm, Creighton continued practising the flute. "Of course, it's not electric and flute is wind, right? So I thought, 'Oh I'll just go along with this.'"
She visited neighbours around 11pm and, when returning a half-hour later, had to "push hard" against the wind to make it back to her house. "All the doors in the house started to shake, violently. So loud. It was just a cacophony of sound and that went on for hours."
When the power went out, Creighton lit candles and watched them flicker in the draught. "I was just sitting here, listening." She heard explosive bursts, transformers blowing up. She was able to talk to Allen, who was worrying in New Brunswick and relatives in Ontario, who saw the news.
Creighton didn't sleep until about 4am, she says. The next day, the aftermath, stunned her, like so many others: Heaved and cleaved sidewalks, toppled and torn-open trees, green debris with thin black power lines snaking through, the chorus of chainsaws and the smell of wood, wood fires and barbecues.
"The thing I loved about it was that all the electricity was off. So you couldn't hear the traditional frequency hum," Creighton says. People came to her place to cook, eat and to chat. "I went down the street to where two musicians from the symphony lived. I went over there and we sat there drinking coffee and talking to whoever walked by. It made me think, 'Man, this is the stuff of life.'"
How one distills the "stuff of life" into music is, of course, a metaphorical act. On the surface, Allen's absence from the city hit by the storm appears to be a liability to the success of his Hurricane Juan Concerto. Didn't he have to be here to hear the wind howl, the trees crack, the rain smack and the chainsaws wail? Perhaps that's taking it a bit too literally and, maybe, one has to look at it figuratively or metaphorically.
Thinking he had the better part of 2007 to write the concerto, teaching and performance obligations dominated his time. Suddenly, it was June of this year and Allen had an August 1 deadline to deliver the score to Reilly at CBC and Bernhard Gueller at SNS. He and Creighton talked at length about various approaches. She encouraged him, she says, to divide the piece into different time periods to capture the storm's narrative.
Eventually, Allen rented a small cottage in Mersey River and brought along an electric piano. "When you're alone, you're only dealing with your own mind," says Creighton. "You're not even talking. One thing he said to me when he came back was that he realized, and he talked non-stop at first, he had to deal strictly with himself and his compositional . He hadn't composed in awhile, right? And he was having doubts: 'Can I still do this?' He composed a lot when he was younger. Predominantly he's a concert pianist and that's a whole different ballgame than composing."
After five solitary days and copious notes, he returned. "I came back and basically obsessed with it for about seven weeks."
Eventually, Allen had his structure of five movements. The first conveys a sunny, pastoral day preceding the stormy night. The storm starts in the second, leading almost "like a tarantella. It's sort of a devilish dance." Charged excitement turns to growing seriousness as the hurricane's power builds, Allen says. The third, "thicker and louder" and the longest, "had to get on your nerves a little bit, just like the storm really did." This flows into the fourth and the relief of a "piano cadenza, which, contrary to most cadenzas in concertos, which are big and flashy...is very, very soft and very thin." Played solo, this movement tells of those first few hours of dawn and early morning after the storm moved on. But there's practical reasons for it, too. After 15 or 16 minutes of musical mayhem, he says, "The audience needs it musically, the musicians need it, the pianist is certainly going to need it."
After all, Allen is the pianist. The fifth and final movement "brings back some of the themes from the other movements but in a pretty positive way. It gets a little wacky, but then ends very triumphantly."
Allen draws heavily on timpani in the stormy second and third movements, while brass is a strong voice, too, because it "tends to be ominous, maybe angry, building to something." Again, one expects wind instruments to play a big role, but Allen says, "If any group is not used as much, it's the wind instruments. I use them more for colour and actually sometimes even for just portraying wind."
While combining the instruments in a variety of ways, the piano shifts from the foreground to the background, sometimes assuming the voice of the communityand sometimes an element in the storm.
Reilly says, "I love this idea of five movements, the dynamic of five movements, which is an unusual number of movements. It gives it a sort of hurricane-like instability." Writing in an early to mid-20th century style, like Shostakovich (his Symphony No. 10 is the other half of the SNS season opener), Prokofiev and Bartók, he explains that Allen belongs to a "world of tonality, where it is quite, quite unusual that somebody's writing and performing. Because, a lot of it is hard. It's hard to write this stuff and it's hard to play it."
When all the hard work is finished, you may find Allen strolling in Point Pleasant Park, one of the focal points of the Hurricane Juan devastation and mythology, with his mind on new music, or not. He may just be taking in the surroundings. "I think Point Pleasant Park looks a lot better now. I think going down to Point Pleasant now and seeing the sky and water from so many different places ...I like it. It's almost like Mother Nature said, 'You know what, it's getting way too cluttered in here. There's not enough sunshine getting in; there's no sea breeze coming in. You can't see the water. So I'll take care of that for you.'"
Hurricane Juan Concerto, Peter Allen with Symphony Nova Scotia, Sunday, September 28, 2pm at the Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, $32 - $47.50. Broadcast on Sunday Afternoon in Concert, CBC Radio Two, 1 – 5 pm in all time zones (1:30 to 5:30 in NL).