Images of the sea figure prominently throughout my life and memories: from holidays on the Atlantic coast during my Canadian childhood to my current Baltic home, and the imagined, only later experienced Mediterranean of my ancestral heritage. As an immigrant (son of an immigrant) bound to two northern countries, the sea is emblematic of my twin homelands, from the expanses of water surrounding them to those separating them. A Mari usque ad Mare. The sea is also an enduring image of the unknown, of expanses unexplored, of the raw power of nature and, for too many currently, of terror holding a hope of refuge - or the pain of loss.
Such disparate ideas were captured for me in the seascapes of the New York painter MaryBeth Thielhelm, whom I met in 2008 during a residency on the Gulf of Mexico. Her vast, abstract, nearly monochromatic depictions of imaginary seas in wildly varying moods were the catalyst for a concerto where the piano is frequently far from a hero battling a collective, but rather acts as a channel for elemental forces surging up from the orchestra, floating - sometimes barely so - on its constantly shifting surface. There are few themes to speak of, beyond a handful of iconic ideas that periodically cycle upward. Rather, the piano's material is largely an ornamentation of the more primal rhythmic and harmonic impulses from the orchestra below - a poetic interpretation, if you will, of the more immediate experience of facing the vastness of some unknown body of water.
The title Nameless Seas is borrowed from one of Thielhelm's exhibitions, as are those of the four movements, which are bridged together into two halves of roughly equal weight - one rhapsodic and free, the other more single-minded and direct, separated only by a short breath. The opening movement, Nocturne, is predominantly calm, if brooding, darkness and light alternating throughout. Lyrical arabesques sparkle over gently lapping cross-currents in the strings and mirrored timpani, the piano's full power only rarely deployed. The waves gradually build, drawing in the full orchestra for a meeting of forces in Land and Sea, a brighter, more warmly lyrical scene that unfolds in series of dreamlike, sometimes even nostalgic visions, which for me carry strong memories of sitting on rocks above surging Atlantic waves. The third movement, Wake, is a fast, perpetual-motion texture of glinting, darting rhythms and sudden shafts of light, with a prominent part for the steel drums, limning the piano's quicksilver figurations. An ecstatic climax crashes into a solo cadenza that grows progressively calmer and more introspective rather than virtuosic. Much of the tension finally releases into Unclaimed Waters, a drifting, meditative seascape in which the piano is progressively engulfed by a series of ever-taller waves, ultimately dissolving into a tolling, rippling continuum of sound.
It has been a great privilege to realize such a long-held dream as this piece, and to write it for not one, but two great pianists. Risto-Matti Marin and Angela Hewitt, both of whose friendship and support have been unfailing and humbling, share the dedication. Nameless Seas was commissioned by the PianoEspoo festival and Canada's National Arts Centre, with the premieres in Ottawa and Helsinki led by Hannu Lintu and Olari Elts. Thanks are due also to the Jenny and Antti Wihuri fund, whose generous grant provided me with much-needed time, and Escape to Create in Seaside, Florida, the source to which I returned to do a large part of the work. (Matthew Whittall)