Hear This Houston Composer's Ghostly New Music Written For SAIPC

Jun 21, 2016

At this year’s San Antonio International Piano Competition, the five finalists were able to choose the repertoire they felt would best showcase their talents, but there was one piece they *had* to play, by Matthew Mason.

Shortly after the 2012 competition, Houston-based Mason was approached by former SAIPC board member Terrence Frazor to write music for this year's contest. Mason, a pianist himself, came up with a ghostly waltz called “Bal Fantôme” for the twelfth San Antonio International Piano Competition. (You can hear the music below.) I caught up with him by phone this week to ask him about the music.

Nathan Cone: Were there stipulations on what you had to write? It must be this length, etc.

Matthew Mason: All they told me was it needed to be three to five minutes long. Everything else was completely up to me.

When you have such an open canvas, and you’re writing specifically for a competition, does that change at all what you’re thinking about when you’re writing the piece?

Yeah, it does. I knew that the pianists that were going to be playing were world-class, so I wasn’t worried about overly technically challenging them. I knew they could play anything that I would write. So that was a nice bit of freedom there. Also, though, I knew that they had a limited amount of time to learn it, and I didn’t want to make it ridiculously difficult, you know what I mean? It’s for professionals, but it’s not overly difficult. So that played into it as well. I’m a pianist myself, so I know what it’s like. You got two months to learn this monster, and I didn’t want [my piece] to be a burden, but I also wanted it to be a challenge.

So it wouldn’t be for them like, ‘oh I gotta get through the Rachmaninoff, and the Liszt, and THIS TOO!?!”

Yeah, exactly! I wanted to walk a fine line between difficult and not too much! [laughs]

Thematically, what were you going for?

The title I got from a tiny unknown piano work by Francis Poulenc. He has a little nocturne that he subtitled “Bal Fantôme.” And I just kind of went with the imagery. Mine sounds nothing like his, but I kind of had the idea of a ghostly waltz. I’ve always loved the old Saint-Saens “Danse Macabre,” and Ravel’s “La Valse,” and those things. So I let my imagination take over, and I wanted it to be somewhat kind of dark, but not in a serious way. Lighthearted but dark.

Right. More “Haunted Mansion” than Stephen King

Yeah, yeah! Not like horror or anything, but just entertaining with a macabre little edge to it.

Well it fit so well on the program also with those other pieces you mentioned. There were several pianists at the competition that played both “Danse Macabre” as well as “La Valse.”

That was a total surprise to me, because when I was in college, nobody played the “La Valse” transcription! And now it seems like several of the competitors played it. At one point in fact I think one pianist played “Bal Fantôme” and “La Valse” right next to each other.

That’s right! Well, tell me about what you’re doing in Houston with your education and teaching as well.

I have a piano school in Kingwood, and the school is called Pianicity, and what we do is we teach class piano for kids. The reason that we do class piano is because... whenever you have kids in a class [together], you can create a bit of competition. So we offer prizes, almost like a little mini piano competition every week. The result of this is—(because I taught one-on-one for many years)—the kids will practice like you can’t believe, because they want to win the prize! Basically I took the idea of high school sports and put it into a class piano setting. And they love it! So it took a while to really get it off the ground. I had a lot of experimentation going on and all that, but yeah, it’s been a lot of fun, really.

That sounds like a really fun way to encourage students, because they can see what their peers are doing at the same time.

Exactly, and they don’t want to come in next week not having practiced. The kids can kind of be harsh with each other! [laughs] They don’t want to be embarrassed that they didn’t get it done. So it almost started as an attempt to try and answer that question ‘how do I get my kids to practice?’ which I’ve heard countless times.

I ask myself that same thing! I got two kids in piano.

There you go! Exactly. It definitely keeps them interested in it, for sure.