Symphony (LA Phil commission)
Choosing to call a new work a symphony means confronting the genre’s long, intimidating history and its powerful traditions. It is a history ineluctably tied to older eras and tied, too, to the materials and means of those older eras: strong melodic themes, well-defined formal patterns, developmental techniques. Thus, to the extent that symphonies did continue to flourish in the 20th century, they did so largely among the less modernist, more traditional masters.
So what does it mean for a composer of my generation to haul the title Symphony out of his closet in 2012? I myself had written four symphonies before the age of 30 (two of them juvenilia, the other two more advanced student works, all of them now withdrawn), but then I turned my back on the idea for another 30 years. Not that I abandoned the medium of the symphony orchestra, which has remained my artistic home. But many of my works over these past 30 years have been coloristic: the image- driven Pinturas de Tamayo, for example, or Impromptus, or Son et lumière. Several have been concertos with soloists; three more concertos have made the orchestra itself the star. More recently, I have been drawn to single-movement orchestral forms that combine several sections of different moods and tempos into one large, encompassing musical journey, such as Radical Light (Los Angeles, 2007) and Silent Spring (Pittsburgh, 2011). I guess we would have to call such works tone poems or symphonic poems (even without overt extra-musical programs), though those terms too fall quaintly on the postmodern ear. At the same time, one would have to notice that their aims and methods are not so very different from one-movement symphonies like the Sibelius Seventh or the Barber First.
My new Symphony is much like Radical Light and Silent Spring: a single expanse of music that travels through a series of emotional landscapes, depositing us at the end of our journey in a different place from where we set out. Why “symphony,” then? Perhaps the very word is meant to assert that it’s time for me to face squarely my own relation to the symphonic tradition? Perhaps it’s a call for gravitas, an ambition to treat the material more “symphonically,” including the possibility that ideas might return, develop, evolve?
The narrative is a purely musical one (no Mahler- or Tchaikovsky-style personal confessions), but it is a narrative no less personal, dramatic, or emotional. “In Introduction and Hymn,” we begin with lonely woodwind solos, led by the oboe and later flute, which swell then into billows of woodwind texture before delivering us onto the shore of a slowly developing, hymn-like brass chorale.
Very suddenly, the peaceful conclusion of this first section is interrupted by a two-note motif signaling the second section, “Outcry.” Something has gone terribly wrong: music of hope and peace has been replaced by music of turmoil, even anguish. Spurred on again and again by the two-note motif, this music becomes ever faster and more agitated, hurtling toward the third section, “Flying.” Now it is as if the orchestra (and we along for the ride) has broken free of the emotional clutches of the second section and can really let itself go in fast, virtuoso playing. (This is the only section that corresponds neatly to a conventional symphony movement, namely a scherzo.) When this fast music has worked itself into as frenzied and as glittery a state as it can manage, suddenly it gives way to the final “Hymn and Reconciliation”: massive string chords against which, one by one, earlier musics return. We hear the brass hymn and the woodwind billows from the first section, the turbulent theme from the second section now recollected in tranquility, and finally the two-note outcry motif, once anguished but now serene.
Symphony was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, with major support provided by Lenore S. and Bernard Greenberg. — Steven Stucky