This is in fact my third piano concerto, because the first piece I wrote when I was twelve was an ambitious, virtuoso Romantic piano concerto (unfinished, however).
This is my most historically retrospective piece to date. I allowed myself the freedom to refer to the repertoire which I have loved all my musical life: so there are references to Chopin’s harmony, the gestures of Brahms, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky, and later on Ravel’s structural ploys. Although the narrative structure of the piece appears to link it firmly to the first half of the twentieth century, rather than the second, I think of the concerto as a post-minimalist piece. It is only at the end (in the last section) that the material is presented in its true colors.
I began the piece while staying in Greece in a house facing due west overlooking the sea. The village is at a point on the Mani where legend has it Achilles set out with a fleet to retrieve Helen from Troy. I was reading several ancient Greek plays while I was there and was struck by the importance of the sea in Greek literature. I was also taken by the rhythms of the language. In particular the seven-beat rhythm of catalexis somehow seemed to reflect the swell of the waves.
I decided to call the piece Atlantic Crossing, however. The sea voyage from Ireland to America has always held a special place in the hearts of the Irish. The hope of a new life, the escape from the Great Hunger--all of these are associated with this journey, more than any other. This gave me an image with which to start the piece, although it is not to be regarded as program music.
The piano was my first instrument. I began at the age of ten and from twelve onwards started buying every Romantic concerto I could lay my hands on and struggling through them. Knowing that few pieces had continued in this line, I decided to write it in the same tradition. Fortunately I have a great virtuoso in Marc-André Hamelin to play the piece. The piano part is very demanding (and hopefully glittering). (The pianist hardly stops playing in twenty-three minutes, and works his way through some 14,000 notes.) In terms of difficulty (only), it comes close to Rack 3 (Rachmaninoff 3), but is quite a bit shorter.
It is fairly different from any other of my pieces, although not too far from the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, I guess. Both aim at a big, rich sound--treating the piano as a resonant, rather than percussive instrument.