Son of Chamber Symphony was commissioned by Stanford University, Carnegie Hall, and the San Francisco Ballet, and dedicated to Ara Guzelimian. Its first performance was November 30, 2007, at Stanford, with Alan Pierson conducting Alarm Will Sound. The dance version, titled Joyride and choreographed by Mark Morris, was premiered April 23, 2008.
The piece shares similar acrobatic – even aerobic – character with its predecessor, the 1992 Chamber Symphony, itself a piece inspired by the eponymous Op. 9 of Arnold Schoenberg. Those who know Adams’ clarinet concerto, Gnarly Buttons, might also detect the sweet and sour flavors of that piece lurking in the background of Son of Chamber Symphony.
Cast in three movements, the rhythmic edginess is in part due to the choreographic intent – the young, agile San Francisco Ballet dancers who would be performing the piece were very much on Adams’ mind during the composition. A bouncing pulse launches the first movement. Short, dry notes in low winds and strings mix with samples made of prepared piano sounds. The fabric intensifies until it gives way to a scrambled polyphony of high woodwinds and punctuating brass chords. A second movement uses a familiar Adams trope, a long winding, sinuous melody floating over a gentle train of “strummed” chords that may remind the listener of the opening of Naive and Sentimental Music or the final movement of Gnarly Buttons. But this movement goes awry, its calm regularity jolted into a passage of hiccupping trochees that interrupt the lyrical mood, almost as if making a parody of it.
The final movement is a trope on the “News” aria from Nixon in China. The bass instruments pump out a chugging figure of alternating major and minor thirds while the upper voices make a volley of chattering polyphonies in and outside of the pulse. The movement is a family member not only of the “News” aria, but also of a short string quartet, Fellow Traveler, written in honor of Peter Sellars’ 50th birthday.