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Adam SCHOENBERG (b 1980)
Finding Rothko (2006) [14:51]
American Symphony (2011) [22:46]
Picture Studies (2012) [27:22]
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. 20-21 June, 2014, Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri
Reviewed in SACD Stereo

The American composer, Adam Schoenberg studied firstly at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and then, as a doctoral student, at the Juilliard School where his teachers included John Corigliano. Finding Rothko, a work for chamber orchestra, was composed during his time with Corigliano and it was premiered in 2007 by Michael Stern conducting the IRIS Orchestra. This is a Tennessee-based orchestra which Stern founded in 2000. Stern has clearly become something of a champion of Schoenberg’s music because the other two pieces on this disc were commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony and were first performed by Stern and the orchestra. This was my first encounter with Schoenberg’s music.

I think at the outset it’s worth making one general point about Schoenberg’s music – at least as far as the present pieces are concerned. He writes that it is “deceptively difficult”. He goes on to say: “On paper it looks relatively straightforward, because it lives in more of a tonal or modal world, but it is extremely challenging rhythmically, technically, and, most importantly musically.” When I read these words and the composer’s other notes about the contents of the disc I wondered whether this music might be “tough meat”. I can assure readers that this is not the case. There is no doubt that the music is technically challenging and the writing is often complex. However, it seems to me that Schoenberg’s achievement in these three scores is that he has written music that, no matter how technically demanding it may be, never leaves the listener behind. There’s absolutely no condescension to the listener yet these pieces are written in fluent, accessible language, the scoring is unfailingly colourful and imaginative and the composer consistently communicates with the listener while at the same time stimulating him or her.

Finding Rothko is a four-movement work inspired by four paintings by the American artist, Mark Rothko (1903-1970). The piece is for chamber orchestra and one feature of the excellent documentation accompanying this disc is that the notes about each of the three works details the forces for which each is scored: that’s very useful indeed. In this case the instrumentation consists of double woodwind, two each of horns and trumpets, piano/celeste, timpani, three percussionists and strings. The four movements play without a break. The first, Orange, is slow moving – the composer sees it as “a reflective moment” - and then the pace picks up for Yellow. Here, once established, the quicker pulse remains constant – I think – but the music becomes busier and also stronger in tone before falling back again. Schoenberg says that Red is composed almost entirely without the use of graphic notation and represents an improvisation. In this movement much of the music is far grittier and dissonant than anything we’ve heard up to now. Yet there are also passages of calm, almost stasis. He describes Wine as “some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever written”. The speed is slow and the music seems tender, certainly gentle, at first though it gradually accumulates richness. This is a marked and very effective contrast with the tumult of the preceding movement. Finding Rothko is an impressive piece and I’m sure there’s more in it for me to discover than I’ve so far been able to discern.

Schoenberg tells us that American Symphony was inspired by the US Presidential election of 2008 “where both parties asked the people to embrace change and make a difference. I was excited about ushering in this new era in our nation’s history, and for the first time, I truly understood what it meant to be American.” He goes on to say that an additional stimulus was the example of Copland’s Third Symphony and that, by chance, he heard that work just three nights after the election of President Obama. It’s hard to resist the thought that Schoenberg may well have entertained less positive thoughts immediately after 2016 election.

His symphony is in five movements, the first three of which play without a break. The work requires a large orchestra including triple wind, full brass, timpani and four percussionists as well as strings. He describes the first movement, fanfare, as “a succinct, swift and uplifting prelude” The music is vibrant, colourful and positive. I’m tempted to say, in a complimentary way, that it could only have been written by an American. There follows white on blue which “marks the start of the symphony’s emotional journey by capturing the struggle, pain and need for change.” In keeping with this the movement begins quietly but in an unsettled vein. Even though much of the movement is quite subdued in volume the music seems troubled to me. Gradually, though, it becomes more determined and eventually segues into rondo. The composer describes this short movement as “happy music”. The mood is outgoing and strongly accentuated rhythms are a feature. The movement ends with surprising abruptness.

The fourth movement, entitled prayer, is an Adagio in which Schoenberg pays homage to great American composers including Barber and Gershwin. Here the music is characterised by long-breathed phrases and there are several examples of expressive woodwind solos. The writing seems to me to have nobility and no little feeling. The finale is entitled stars, stripes and celebration but don’t expect any vulgar or heart-on-sleeve patriotism. To be sure, the music is celebratory and energetic. It also seems very challenging in terms of the rhythms. It sounds to me to be expertly written for orchestra; it sounds like a virtuoso piece. I think I’d term it a thoughtful celebration. Schoenberg says that the work ends “suspended in mid-air to remind us that even though we are making positive strides to being a better America, we are still searching.” I have to say that I don’t quite get the bit about a mid-air ending; it doesn’t sound like that to me but that’s probably a failure of perception on my part. Overall, I think American Symphony is a skilfully and thoughtfully written piece which exploits the modern orchestra most effectively. I’ve enjoyed the process of becoming acquainted with it but I’m sure it has more still to give.

The idea behind Picture Studies is most interesting. It was commissioned jointly by the Kansas City Symphony and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City with the specific intention that Schoenberg should compose a twenty-first century Pictures at an Exhibition. Eventually, after careful study of the works of art housed in the museum the composer found that his imagination was particularly stimulated by eight pieces. Unlike Mussorgsky, however, who was inspired by the works of just one artist, Viktor Hartmann, Schoenberg has responded to the work of no less than eight artists, Furthermore he’s been able to range more widely than Mussorgsky in terms of different types of visual arts and so his pieces are reactions to four paintings, three photographs and a sculpture. The score is in 10 movements including a short Introduction and an equally short Interlude as movement VIII.

I’ve only viewed a couple of the images that stimulated Schoenberg’s imagination, both of which are reproduced in the booklet, though I’m sure all the images can be accessed these days on the internet with a bit of digging. However, I don’t know how much it matters that I’ve not made all of the visual connections: after all, how often does one sit down to listen to Pictures at an Exhibition with the Hartmann images to hand? Judged simply as pieces of music I think Schoenberg’s Picture Studies are highly effective, not least in the skill and flair with which, once again, he writes for the orchestra. Among the pieces that particularly caught my ear was Olive Orchard (movement IV) which was inspired by van Gogh’s painting of the same name. The composer writes of the “extended impressionism” of this piece and I admire the subtle, slow-moving and delicate music heard at the outset and also the way that the tone of the piece becomes more pronounced, yet still subtle, as it unfolds. In complete contrast the very next movement, inspired by Kandinsky’s picture Rose with Gray, is much more muscular and jagged with a high dissonance quotient. The music is aggressively rhythmical, the percussion used to striking effect. Time almost seems to stand still in Calder’s World (movement VI). This is a response to the only sculpture in the set, Alexander Calder’s Untitled. There’s a chilly beauty to the writing and the scoring here. The final movement, Pigeons in Flight, a response to Francis Blake’s photograph of the same name, is joyous and colourful, providing an invigorating end to a fascinating score.

According to the booklet Adam Schoenberg is one of the 10 living composers whose music is most performed by US orchestras. On the evidence of this disc I can understand why. It’s colourful, inventive, highly skilled music that connects strongly to listeners – or, at least, it connected strongly with me. I’m sure that, as he indicates in his notes, it presents many challenges to the performers but it would seem that Michael Stern and his excellent orchestra meet these challenges head-on and with relish. Though the music was new to me and I haven’t seen scores these performances seem highly accomplished and confident. Lucky the contemporary composer who receives such advocacy.

These are the sort of scores that cry out for excellent recorded sound and happily that’s exactly what they receive here from Keith O. Johnson. I’ve experienced his work with this orchestra and this hall before and I’ve been impressed. This is another top-drawer recording. I listened to this hybrid disc as an SACD and got excellent results. The sound is present and has plenty of impact without a hint of aggression. There’s an excellent dynamic range and lots of detail emerges very naturally, which is just what you want in scores like these.

The accompanying documentation is excellent; the composer writes comprehensively and clearly about his music.

Artistically and sonically this is an exciting disc. Adam Schoenberg’s music has been a welcome discovery for me and I hope to hear more of it.

John Quinn



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