Length: c. 12 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd = alto, 3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, steel drum, chimes, marimba, tam-tams, tom-toms, tuned gongs), piano (= celesta), harp, and strings
First LA Phil performances (world premiere)
Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences first heard the music of James Matheson on the late Steven Stucky’s 20th Anniversary Concert in December 2007. Stucky had become familiar with Matheson’s work at Cornell University, where Stucky taught for many years and Matheson did his doctoral studies. Matheson has since become himself a welcome member of the LA Phil family, directing the Nancy and Barry Sanders Composer Fellowship Program from 2009 to 2015. The LA Phil has also performed his piano quintet Borromean Rings, the West Coast premiere of his Violin Concerto (co-commissioned), and his short piano solo CHAPTER 1 on the Radical Light memorial concert for Stucky.
Unchained has its own story of family and friends. One of Matheson’s friendships, going back two decades to his student days, is with a man who spent most of the intervening years in prison on disproportionate sentences. He was finally released to a mental health facility – and their friendship renewed – while Matheson was working on this piece, and he will be freed in late February, around the time of these concerts. The composer himself has been confronted with the specter of the criminal justice system, and all of this resonated with the current issues of justice and equality filling the news during the composing of Unchained, giving it both its moments of release and its taut-but-unsettled forebodings.
It begins with a wallop, a loud chord from which syncopated E-flats in the horns dance, with a slide down a half-step to D that has a significant role to play as a generative interval and formal marker. This introduction contains the shapes of things to come, stately in tempo, but rhythmically energized and edgy.
The tempo doubles for a scherzando section of lyrical woodwind lines over fluttering upper strings, abruptly terminated by an aggressive, fiercely accented rumble. The brief steel drum solo – aspirational yet fading – is the “moment of emancipation,” Matheson says, its otherworldly sound also recalling the instrument’s origins in segregated Trinidad. Colorful and vigorous development brings the return of the opening section, but this time with D pushing up to E-flat for a formally rounded and emphatic – but not untroubled – ending. — John Henken