Misha Amory on Learning the Penderecki Concerto

Misha Amory’s “Learning the Penderecki Concerto” is a thoughtful guide offering both useful practice suggestions and helpful musical perspectives.  His own viola score (included below) gives a most valuable view of possibilities for fingerings, bowings and marking of cues.

Mark up the part

Write in orchestra’s rhythms as needed.  When in doubt, do it – there is no such thing as too much information.  Do this right away, so you can start hearing the cross-rhythms and impulses in your head well before the first piano rehearsal.  As an example, I’m including a PDF of my marked part at the bottom of this post.

This will a) improve your knowledge of the score, b) tell you when you are rhythmically responsible to the ensemble and when you are free to do as you like, and c) give you a sense of when you will need to work to project.

Divide and conquer

Even more than most works, this piece is quite divisible.  An example scheme is:

Opening section

  • Start to 3
  • Cadenza to 4
  • 6 to 10
  • 10 to 11

First giusto section

  • 11 to 14
  • 16 to 18
  • 19 to 21
  • 21 to 24
  • 24 to 26
  • 26 to 27

Brief reprise / cadenza

  • 27 to 30
  • 30 to cadenza
  • cadenza to Vivace
  • Vivace to 32


  • 34 to 37
  • 38 to 41


  • 41 to end

The idea here is to help the mind get organized.  The smaller sections are not analytical, but are just logical, self-contained bites of music that one can zero in on and practice singly.  The larger sections are to keep the smaller ones from feeling like a mere list of items, to give a loose structural feel to the learning process, and eventually serve as the larger bite-size sections that we will practice later, when we know the work well.  If you feel it would help, try setting daily / weekly targets for when each small section will get attention, and consequently make plans for rehearsing each large one with piano.  This is an organizational approach that could arguably be used for any piece, but in the case of a sprawling, contemporary, single-movement work, it may be especially valuable.

“Types” of music in the work

Grossly simplified, one might perceive four main textures, or kinds of music, in the work: slow, parlando music (such as the opening), florid/freely improvised (cadenza on the first page, or the music at 10), propulsive, “giusto” music (such as 11), and lighter, scherzando music (25, or 35).  These types are often not strictly separated from each other, often interrupting one another or evolving to one another, but identifying them can provide another way of making sense of the piece in the early learning process.


With the exception of the slow material, it will help to do plenty of mechanical, rhythmic practice at first, even with the free, cadenza-like sections, just to give your mind a framework for its perceptions.  Although metronome work is often impossible due to the changing meter/pulse, fix a mental eighth-beat, or quarter-beat, and work through a small section with strict rhythm.  This approach will speed up internalization considerably.

When choosing fingerings for rapid passage work, try to minimize shifting, and watch out for opportunities to use open strings when you do shift.  (Examples – 22-23, the run before 27)

Practice runs (such as the one before 27 or the one at the top of the last page) starting with the last few notes, and building onto the beginning.

A note on bowings in the “giusto” music (like 11) – add slurs as needed to make the string crossings consistently comfortable.  Often the composer has done this for you (e.g. end of second line and fifth page), but take his cue and do it yourself if not (e.g. last line, tenth page).

When fingering the slow opening, I recommend “sticking” with each string as long as possible before proceeding to the next higher one, to evoke a feeling of effort or burden.  More generally, when fingering the slow sections aim for a vocal quality; when there is a choice, more often stay on the same string rather than crossing.

Notes from the DVD of the Penderecki/Zimmermann performance

The tempo of the performance was quite fluid, not only where a change is marked, but often where it is not.  For example, the tempi at 11, 14 and 18 were very different, and the vivace before 32 is different still.

A few approximate sample tempi from that performance (for information, not necessarily to be religiously followed):

  • Opening: 60 to the quarter.
  • 11: 126 to the quarter.
  • 14: 88 to the quarter.
  • 18: 66 to the quarter.
  • 25: 116 to the eighth.
  • Vivace before 32: 152 to the quarter.
  • 34: about 100 to the dotted quarter.

Some errata, at least in my part:

  • Page 1, first line: the slurred B-flat and A four notes from the end should be repeated.
  • Page 6, third line: a couple of missing slurs, one over A-flat/G, then later over A-flat/F.
  • Page 6, fourth line from the bottom: second note should be D.
  • Page 8, third line: three notes before the last trill, should the pitch be C-sharp or D-sharp?  Viola part has D-sharp, and that is what Tabea plays in the performance; but the piano part has C-sharp and it seems intervallically more right.

Penderecki Concerto – Misha Amory markings


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