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Kansas City Symphony performs percussive preview of Adam Schoenberg recording

The sparse crowd gathering in the sumptuous lobby of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
The sparse crowd gathering in the sumptuous lobby of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
Floyd E. Gingrich

A preview of the music of Adam Schoenberg to be recorded byu the KC Symphony


The KC Symphony is making good use of Adam Schoenberg (b. 1980) its Composer-in-Residence for the 2012-2013 concert year: it is making its sixth recording since Michael Stern became its conductor with three of Schoenberg's most-played works. Thursday evening, June 19, 2014, was the public preview of that music, in Helzberg Hall of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, to be recorded during the following two days.

Schoenberg (L) and Stern embrace after the American Symphony performance
Floyd E. Gingrich

The meme for the first four movement piece, Finding Rothko (2006), is a collection of four paintings at New York's Museum of Modern Art by artist Mark Rothko. A Kansas Citian, blind from birth, said that there is no description of color that makes sense, not heat for red, not ice for blue. So it is, that these color-based movements do not describe the colors, designs, or brush strokes of the art, but are simply musical ideas that were prompted in one composer's mind after viewing them. This work for chamber orchestra was commissioned by the IRIS Orchestra of Georgetown, Tennessee, and premiered in January 2007, directed by its founder and principal conductor, Michael Stern.

"Orange," begins with muffled orchestral chords, followed by birdlike solos and ensembles from the flutes, piccolos, oboes and clarinets. with stringed echos and ominous timpani tappings. Unlike much modern music, Schoenberg features basically tonal scales with the sweetness of doubled thirds contrasted with the starkness of open fifths. The (particularly flute) melodies are graceful, evoking, perhaps, a stretching swan in the morning mist of an isolated pond, which has nothing to do with the painting.

"Yellow," the strings start with an incessant two-notes of an arpeggio, shortly accentuated by pizzicato cellos, then a floating flute line. The timpani and brass develop a crescendo that is echoed by two building cymbal rolls, the second higher than the first, all punctuated by various percussion section claps, dings, and crashes, leading to a bumblebee flight of the upper strings, then all settles for a seamless passage into the third movement.

"Red," is announced by dissonant brass alternating with insistent pounding drum shots. This is answered by frenzied strings as in a conversation. This all calms down to a languorous brass melody, leading into a spate of frenzied, spiraling flutes, but not as insistent, not as loud. This leads into brass and percussion accents in an irregular rhythm, dying down to dissonant woods and brass, then more consonant with the sweetness of the tenth (added third) softening for an ever so gently arched final. This may well be the movement that most tries to depict the colors on the canvas.

In beginning "Wine," shimmering strings are joined by long, descending chords from various sections, chimes and harp, sounding very optimistic. But as the lower strings join in the mood becomes decidedly somber with minor chords and a slowly growing crescendo. For a cinematic scene to match the music, the earliest light of dawn would illuminate a flowered meadow, the site of yesterday's battle, but as the light becomes brighter, the scattered body parts become evident, and there is nothing to celebrate in the sunshine.

Picture Studies, jointly commissioned by The Kansas City Symphony and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, underwritten by the Miller Nicholas Foundation and the Richard J. Stern Foundation for the Arts, is Schoenberg's musical tour of pictures at an exhibition, this time not modeled on paintings of Mussorgsky's friend, Viktor Hartmann, but inspired by eight paintings at the Nelson by artists Baasch, Blake, Bloch, Calder, van Gogh, Mirò, Kandinsky, and Sugimoto. It was premiered in 2013 by the KC Symphony. It is a sublime piece, but as Maestro Stein remarked, music is not about anything, it is black spots on paper; it is up to the performers to realize the sound.

The orchestra walked us through the hallowed halls of Kansas City's Nelson with grace, precision, and musicality. Were one to listen to the ten movements with no priming, it would sound like music, music that has not yielded to yesterday's demands of dodecaphony, serialism, and unending chromatic disharmony (oh how 2oth Century). Perhaps Aaron Copland and John Williams will be remembered more fondly than the academic musicians of the last fifty years of the second millenium.

Also commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony, Schoenberg's American Symphony (2011) is a five movement musical tribute to American optimism of Mozatian proportions. The 25 minute piece seeks to illustrate the search for positive change before the 2008 election and the celebratory results of Americans working their way through trials to a successful adaptation to the requirements of a new age. Dr. Schoenberg showed mature restraint in not pouring all of the music he could write into this one piece, it was exactly the right length.

Movement I, "Fanfare," had a happy, moving sound, reminiscent, not a copy of, Judy Garland's trolley song, but with more mature harmonizations. It fades out into a jarring beginning of Movement II, "White on Blue."

Movement III, "Rondo," observes an ABACADA form in major tonality (what the composer calls "happy music") perhaps representing a public naivety, seeking only surface happiness.

Movement IV, Prayer," in a slow, extended tempo, pays homage to the music of American composers and in dedication to those whose lives were lost in national catastrophes, violence and wars.

Movement V, "Stars, stripes, and celebration," works rather as an extended review of previously introduced material, not so much as a reprise as a portrait of a people still not on an affirmative course, a people whose story is not yet fully written.

Adam Schoenberg earned his Bachelor of Music at Oberlin Conservative of Music, and his MM and DMA from The Julliard School. His music has been performed by dozens of first rate ensembles. He teaches composition part time at UCLA in the (Arnold) Schoenberg Building (no relation) when he is not serving as composer-in-residence in one place or another. It is an appropriate time for his music to achieve definitive recording; the KC Symphony, with Michael Stern, is the group to do it.

Adam Schoenberg has several mentors who like what he has done and encourage him to compose more and explore additional ideas; Michael Stern is not the least of these.