Brad Mehldau’s Variations on a Melancholy Theme features the pianist/composer and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which commissioned this orchestral version of the work—a theme and eleven variations plus a cadenza and postlude. The album also includes an encore, “Variations ‘X’ and ‘Y.'" "I imagine it as if Brahms woke up one day and had the blues," Mehldau says of the piece, which combines the classical form with jazz harmonies. "While the theme evokes melancholy, I let it be used as a springboard for other happy, wild, violent, and reckless emotions as the variations progress."
Brad Mehldau’s Variations on a Melancholy Theme will be released June 11, 2021, on Nonesuch Records. The recording features the pianist/composer and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which commissioned this orchestral version of the work, which comprises a theme and eleven variations plus a cadenza and postlude; the album also includes an encore, “Variations ‘X’ and ‘Y.’” You can watch a video with excerpts from the piece below. (Mehldau originally composed Variations on a Melancholy Theme for pianist Kirill Gerstein.) Mehldau and Orpheus toured Europe, Russia, and the US with the piece, including a 2013 performance at Carnegie Hall. Speaking to the combination of classical form with jazz harmonies in the work’s musical language, Mehldau wrote, “I imagine it as if Brahms woke up one day and had the blues.”
Mehldau continues, “The theme itself has a wistful character, perhaps a feeling of resignation. There is some sense of finality and ending to it when heard for the first time already. So as I composed, a narrative challenge emerged; namely, how to embark on a story that begins with a conclusion. While the theme evokes melancholy, I let it be used as a springboard for other happy, wild, violent, and reckless emotions as the variations progress.”
Brad Mehldau’s Nonesuch debut was the 2004 solo disc Live in Tokyo. His subsequent releases on the label include six records with his trio (House on Hill, Day Is Done, Brad Mehldau Trio Live, Ode, Where Do You Start, and Blues and Ballads); collaborative albums (Love Sublime, Highway Rider, Metheny Mehldau, Metheny Mehldau Quartet, Modern Music, Mehliana: Taming the Dragon, Nearness with Joshua Redman, and Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau, and the Grammy Award–winning Finging Gabriel), and further solo albums (Live in Marciac; the eight-LP/four-CD 10 Years Solo Live, which the New York Times says “contains some of the most impressive pianism he has captured on record;” and the album he recorded during COVID-19 lockdown, Suite: April 2020, from which a majority of the proceeds went to Jazz Foundation of America’s COVID-19 Musician’s Emergency Fund).
In 1972, a group of young artists made history by creating an orchestra without a conductor in which musicians led themselves democratically. Since then, the Grammy Award-winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has recorded over 70 albums on all major classical labels—including several with pianist Richard Goode for Nonesuch—toured to 46 countries across four continents, and collaborated with hundreds of world-class soloists. Orpheus’ thirty-four member musicians work together as a collective and rotate leadership roles for all works performed, giving flight to unconventional interpretations. This democratic structure also extends to organizational functions including programming and governance: the orchestra elects three members to Artistic Director positions and three to the Board of Trustees.
Produced by Adam Abeshouse
Recorded, Mixed, and Mastered by Adam Abeshouse
Recorded at Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA, October 4, 2013
Design and Illustration by Lawrence Azerrad
Brad Mehldau, piano
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Violin: Ronnie Bauch, Martha Caplin, Laura Frautschi, Liang-Ping How, Joanna Jenner, Renée Jolles, Doori Na, Todd Phillips, Richard Rood, Eriko Sato, Eric Wyrick
Viola: Maureen Gallagher, Christof Huebner, Nardo Poy, Dov Scheindlin
Cello: Claire Bryant, Susannah Chapman, Melissa Meell, Jonathan Spitz
Double Bass: Gregg August, Jordan Frazier
Flute: Elizabeth Mann, Susan Palma Nidel
Oboe: Matthew Dine, Stephen Taylor
Clarinet: Alan Kay, Jo-Ann Sternberg
Bassoon: Frank Morelli, Karl Vilcins
Horn: Julie Landsman, Patrick Pridemore, Stewart Rose
Trumpet: Carl Albach, Louis Hanzlik
Trombone: David Taylor
Timpani: Maya Gunji
Percussion: James Baker, Maya Gunji