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Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 English horns, 2 clarinets, 2 saxophones, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tams [high and low], tenor drum, triangle), piano, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances.
Tristan Keuris, born in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, in 1946, began studying composition under Ton de Leeuw at the Utrecht Conservatory in 1962, completing his studies in 1969. In 1976, he received the Matthijs Vermeulen Prize for his Sinfonia for orchestra. Up to then a rather unknown young composer, Keuris was suddenly catapulted to public attention. Following the tremendous success of Movements for orchestra (1981) and the Piano Concerto (1982), and more recently his Violin Concerto No. 2 and Symphony in D (both from 1995), Keuris took his place among the most prominent 20th-century Dutch composers.
Keuris composed the Sinfonia, commissioned by the VPRO broadcasting company (a Dutch organization), between 1972 and 1974. The première was given by the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (to which the work was dedicated) conducted by Roberto Benzi and was held in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on January 31, 1976.
"I thought: now music has to become much more straightforward," said Keuris, shortly after the announcement of his receiving the Vermeulen Prize. "I could say, I really miss… the romantic and classical periods, but that doesn’t mean that I have to turn around and start composing in that style tomorrow. You have to find a simpler, more transparent system, but it must be new. The Sinfonia was my attempt at this."
The movements of the Sinfonia merge one into the other without any break. "The whole of the first movement of the Sinfonia is developed from the first section," according to the composer. "You could describe… the Sinfonia as follows: in the first movement it is harmonically complex and rhythmically simple while in the final movement it is rhythmically complex and harmonically simple."
Like the Ives and the Lutoslawski before it, Keuris’ Sinfonia unfolds in mysterious, unpredictable ways. The first section is breathy, with dense, static harmonies, alternating with little flurries of notes that travel throughout the orchestra. Out of these static harmonies -- some consonant and stable, others densely-packed and anxious -- rise the solo voices of several instruments, a clarinet here, a flute there, later the violas. Overall, the effect is arhythmic, the beat hardly perceptible at all.
Roughly halfway through, a pulse begins to be heard, signaled by the thumping of the bass drum. This gives way to a section of sweet, romantic, chorale-like harmonies in the brass. Above, winds chirp and flutter away as if in another world. These romantic chords -- now sounding like the lush, jazzy harmonies of a dreamy, imagined 1950s Hollywood film score -- predominate, eventually played by the entire orchestra. Solo piano answers the passage in plaintive imitation. In the final seconds, sustained strings slowly fade out, like the distant red glow of a slowly dying ember.
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He is also a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.