Saturday, June 3, 2017

An “Orchestra of the Future” Presents a “Composer of the Future”

This coming Friday the Naxos American Classics series will release its second recording of the National Orchestral Institute (NOI) Philharmonic. NOI is based in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. Each June the top musicians of the Institute are recruited to perform in the Philharmonic to give performances and make recordings. The conductor for this particular recording is James Ross, who was Artistic Director of NOI from 2002 to 2012. As is usually the case, this album is currently available for pre-order from

 courtesy of Naxos of America

Two of the selections on the album present early works by composers in their twenties, who were approximately the same age when these pieces were written. The twentieth-century selection is Samuel Barber’s Opus 9, his first symphony composed in 1936 at the age of 26. This century is represented by Samuel Adams’ “Drift and Providence,” which he began in 2011 and completed the following year, meaning that he wrote it when he was the same age as Barber:

photograph of Samuel Adams by Nathan Phillips (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Both are products of “mobile” composers. Barber’s symphony was first performed in Rome, where it was not particularly well received. Nevertheless, the following year it was selected as the first American work to be performed at the Salzburg Festival. Adams, on the other hand, was in “bicoastal mode,” dividing his time between Oakland on the West Coast and Brooklyn on the East.

I should probably begin with the disclaimer of personal preferences for both of these pieces. During my undergraduate years I was very enthusiastic about Barber’s symphony and remained so until it was clear that just about every faculty member in the Music Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a dim view of him. These days I look back on this particular youthful pleasure and realize that I should had the guts to stand up to those professors as I had stood up for John Cage. In the case of “Drift and Providence,” I was fortunate enough to be at the first West Coast premiere of the piece in September of 2012, performed by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), the world premiere having been given by MTT leading the New World Symphony in Miami. (The piece had been written on a co-commission by both ensembles.)

Thanks to Adams’ Oakland connection, I had been fortunate enough to be able to listen to his chamber music on several occasions prior to that SFS performance. Nevertheless, I was not prepared for MTT’s decision to have the piece performed as an “overture” to Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony in C-sharp minor. Of course Mahler was one of the few to stand up for Arnold Schoenberg at a time when almost everyone else was deriding Schoenberg’s compositions. Had I known as a student what Mahler had told his wife about that music (“the young are always right”), I might have had a bit more gumption in confronting my own professors!

The notes in the Naxos booklet say nothing about Mahler. Nevertheless, I could not avoid noticing the parallel between the five uninterrupted sections of “Drift and Providence” (and the transitional role of the second and fourth of those sections) and the five-movement architecture of Mahler’s symphony, whose odd-numbered movements are also the primary structural ones. In addition there are many ways in which the Mahler symphony reflects impressions of the composer’s youth; and “Drift and Providence” is very much “about” Adams’ impressions of the Pacific Ocean and how he experienced them from the peninsula on which the city of San Francisco is situated. Indeed, the sounds of the Ocean itself are part of the music, having been processed electronically and then performed from a laptop. (Adams is credited as the performer on this new album.)

This recording provided me with my first opportunity to listen to “Drift and Providence” performed by another ensemble. I would say that, between Ross’ leadership as conductor and the recording engineering efforts led by Phil Rowlands, this recording has allowed me to listen to this piece more deeply than I could in the immediacy of the two performances I experienced in concert. I am happy to report that the score holds up very well to that depth of listening, and I could not be more delighted to have this recording now part of my collection.

The Barber symphony, on the other hand, provided the experience of reencountering an old friend. Listening to Ross’ sensitive interpretation of this music, I realize that my professors may not have been as dismissive of Barber as I thought. Rather, they were reacting against the unabashedly overwrought approach to performing that symphony that Howard Hanson had taken with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. Yes, there is no doubt that many bold strokes went into composing this symphony; and Ross does not short-change any of those strokes. However, he knows how to fit them into the overall context of the three-movement symphony; and, as a result, he never has to crank the volume level up to eleven (with apologies to Nigel Tufnel)!

Nevertheless, I am less sympathetic to the opening selection on the album, Randall Thompson’s second symphony in E minor. Thompson was about eleven years older than Barber, and this symphony predated Barber’s Opus 9 by about five years. The promotional material on the back of the album credits Thompson with establishing “a bright, vibrant American style” through “its syncopation and echoes of jazz.” However, when it comes to Americanisms, I would say that Thompson’s efforts pale in comparison to those of composers like Virgil Thomson, George Antheil, and even George Gershwin. To his credit, however, Ross puts as much of his own interpretive skills into Thompson’s symphony as his does for Barber; and, across the full scope of this album, the real winners are the NOI students who “made the cut” for the ensemble Ross is conducting.

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