Friday, April 26, 2019

Symphony in Three Movements

I HAVE UPLOADED the orchestral score of my Symphony in Three Movements (1989) to . The score is 112 pages; the file, 1.8 MB.

The score was requested by Kent Nagano and premiered by him, with the Berkeley Symphony, thirty years ago come Sunday, April 28 1989, on a program that went on, after intermission, to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Kent had advised me of this, but assured me there'd be no lack of sufficient rehearsal, and on the whole the performance went well. The concert was given in Berkeley's First Congregational Church, the usual BSO venue in those days.

I remember two reviews: a little old lady came up to me during the intermission and asked "Did you write that music?" "Yes, I did," I answered. "You can do better," she said. "Perhaps I will," I replied.

But I don't think I did until 1996, when I broke a long dry spell with my Trio for Violin, Piano, and Percussion. Why the long dry spell? In part, reaction to another review the Symphony had received:

The San Francisco Chronicle review took issue with my program note (appended to the score online), in which I approved Kent's commitment to "the continued virility of contemporary music." JK took "virility" to mean "chest-thumping" and complained about a macho quality he heard in the performance. I suppose I could have used "fecundity" instead, but the image in my mind was of thee male contribution to generation; the vast repertory of "classical" music in general occupying the female, receptive half.

So it goes. Gender politics and political correctness have vitiated the expressive power of rhetoric — I hope not permanently.

I have been advised more than once never to criticize a performer's execution of my music: the performer in question will be hurt and possibly resentful, and any potential future performer will justifiably wonder if he or she will be similarly criticized for playing my music. At this point in my life I'm not thinking of future performances, so I'll mention a disagreement I had with the conductor, who did not follow my tempo instructions.

As I wrote in the program note,

the Symphony is “about” terror, calm and compulsion. Each of the three movements is in fact a motion within one of these states, and from one state to another. Their context — the area of action, if you like — is natural in the first movement, personal in the second, social in the third. The three movements participate in a formal structure. The tempo steadily increases. Key structural points are marked as special events. Each of the three large sections is composed of three smaller ones in turn. The score is not free from errors, but I'm through with tweaking it for the present.
The tempo indications were crucial to my design, but the conductor suggested I had no idea the effect of the hall's acoustics would have on the performance. In my design the three movements ran a little over six, seven, and six minutes long (6:15, 7:30; 6:15); in the performance they ran eight, ten and a half, and six:thirteen (8:05, 10:36, 6:13). The result was to make the first movement lag and the second ponderous, even hectoring. I think this contributed to the Chronicle opinion.

I gave the score to another conductor after the performance — although he lived in the area, and was a composer himself, I don't think he had heard the premiere. He kept it for a few weeks, but when I asked him what he thought, he asked, rather wistfully, why my music was always so difficult. (I could have asked, but didn't, why his, and that of other composers who wrote in similar styles, was always so simple.)

He may have been referring specifically to the passage beginning at m. 65 in the first movement, where high woodwinds are asked to play fast, rhythmically complex material. (See photo above.) The effect I have in mind is of demented birds. I think I encouraged the musicians involved to fake the passage if necessary; perfect accuracy is less important than the general effect.

Or, who knows, he may have been referring to something else. I suppose I should have asked.

You can hear the music, fairly correct in terms of tempo, here:

First movement [6:30] 7.8 MB
Second movement [7:45] 9.3 MB
Third movement [6:13] 7.5 MB