About this Recording
8.559822 - THOMPSON, R.: Symphony No. 2 / ADAMS, S.: Drift and Providence / BARBER, S.: Symphony No. 1 (National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, J. Ross)

Randall Thompson (1899–1984) • Samuel Adams (b. 1985) • Samuel Barber (1910–81)
Orchestral Works


Randall Thompson (1899–1984): Symphony No. 2 (1931)

Randall Thompson is widely known as one of the mostperformed American composers of choral music. He is notable for writing works that are eminently approachable to audiences and choirs alike. But while he is famous with singers, Thompson is a name with which many orchestral musicians are unfamiliar. He has gone largely unnoticed in the symphonic and orchestral landscape despite the fact that he wrote three symphonies with many of the same stylistic traits of more famous works by Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, and Roy Harris.

His Second Symphony is an excellent example of what the composer was capable of when not composing for voices. It is easy to make comparisons between the work and some of Aaron Copland’s most “American” sounding works, such as Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring, and his Third Symphony. But in fact, Thompson’s work was finished before Copland entered that phase of his compositional career. The sound in this symphony is representative of American orchestral writing during the first half of the twentieth century, but it is perhaps time to consider the work not as one that follows in the footsteps of others, but instead as something at the forefront of a movement.

According to Thompson, the Second Symphony “is based on no program, either literary or spiritual. It is not cyclical,” and thus stands in sharp contrast to the Barber symphony on this album. Instead, the composer set out “to write four contrasting movements, separate and distinct, which together should convey a sense of balance and completeness.”

The work begins with a bright syncopated fanfare that has echoes of jazz, the musical style that American composers were quickly assimilating into their more traditional works at the time. By the time Thompson was composing this symphony, jazz was no longer a taboo or something to be kept in the confines of speakeasies, but rather a bright, vibrant American style that was a quick signifier of a work’s national character.

The second movement is a lush Largo that sounds as if it could have been featured in 1931’s Oscar-winner for best picture, Cimarron. It is music that is at once sweeping in its Romanticism and intimate in its scope and instrumentation. In the final cadence of the second movement, just as the orchestra is ready to move on, a horn quietly interjects a “blue” note that seems out of place in the C major chord. This B-flat is partially another nod to the jazz idiom, but also a functional pitch that leads the orchestra into the following scherzo.

This third movement begins in an irregular meter that lends it a stilted, off-kilter feeling. The finale begins and ends with two Vivace sections that bracket an Allegro featuring a variant of the theme heard at the beginning of the movement. The final Vivace simultaneously employs the entire orchestra for the first time in the movement and brings the work to a close with a long sustained assertion of the movement’s main theme.

Samuel Adams (b. 1985): Drift and Providence (2012)

To hear Drift and Providence is to hear the Pacific Ocean. Composer Samuel Adams says of his process that he “took recordings of the Pacific Ocean, transformed them digitally, and transcribed them for a number of instruments that are able, through a variety of means, to imitate the sound.” The result is a work that pushes the orchestra to its sonic limits in both a metaphorical and literal sense.

Drift and Providence is divided largely into three sections: Embarcadero, Divisadero, and Providence. Between these are two interstitial sections, called Drift I and Drift II. The names of the first two sections refer at once to places in San Francisco and also more general ideas embraced by those Spanish words. An embarcadero is a pier or a point of departure and divisadero is a dividing line or point. Providence, then, is the third signpost of the work, a desired destination.

Of Drift and Providence, Adams says that the depiction of water in the work is not meant to be impressionistic, as in Claude Debussy’s La Mer, but instead “the work aims to bridge the noises of the contemporary world with the sounds of the ocean.” To achieve this Adams must rely on live digital processing of the orchestra.

Adams notes that most orchestral music occurs in the frequencies found between 60 and 4,000 hertz. The ocean, on the other hand, tends to make noise in frequencies below 60 hertz and above 5,000. In order to recreate this on stage, the sound of the orchestra must be literally pushed beyond its normal limits through a combination of extended orchestral techniques and electronic processing provided by the composer at his laptop.

But Adams is quick to point out that while this is a work that incorporates electronic elements, it is a piece that is first and foremost about the live orchestra itself. His goal in writing Drift and Providence was to capture the sound and feeling of the ocean “without compromising what a fantastic orchestra can do.”

“When someone sees that an orchestral work is incorporating electronic elements, there is this assumption that the electronics will play a prominent role in the sound of the piece,” Adams says. “I’m not so much into that. I like to think of the electronics as just one part of a larger tapestry: absolutely essential, as every other voice in the ensemble, but not at its forefront.”

Adams encourages listeners not to spend their time trying to find the electronic elements in the work, but instead to focus on the “persona of the piece.” Drift and Providence provides several “long periods where nothing is happening,” says Adams, “and they are so interesting, because psychoacoustically there is this anticipation.” These moments, psychological troughs in the work, lead to larger formal crests that occur throughout the piece.

Robert Lintott

A note from the composer: Drift and Providence

Drift and Providence is scored for large orchestra and digitally filtered percussion. The form is in five parts played without pause. The odd-numbered movements suggest archetypal musical signposts: Embarcadero, a point of departure; Divisadero, a point of furthest distance; and Providence, a safe place. The evennumbered movements, entitled Drift I and Drift II, follow a series of shifting harmonies and gradual increases in energy.

The sound world of Drift and Providence consists of two main elements. The first is a complex cloud of noise coaxed by the percussionist’s scraping of metallic instruments: cowbells, automobile brake drums and sizzle cymbals. From this texture a sound designer isolates, amplifies and processes overtones in real time that, recombined into the rest of the ensemble, create a digital glow. The other element is an acoustic orchestration with many layers of density and activity: fast on the surface, slow in its depths, but constantly shifting in harmony and color, never static.

I began work sketching the work in the summer of 2011 and completed the score in February of the following year, splitting my time between Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, New York.

Samuel Adams

Samuel Barber (b. 1910–81): Symphony No. 1 (1936)

When Samuel Barber prèmiered his First Symphony in Rome in 1936, he was just 26 years old. The work’s reception was mixed at best. “After the performance, I went out onstage a couple of times,” the composer said in an interview with James Fassett, “and was greeted by about 50 percent applause and 50 percent hissing. I remember standing in the wings wondering whether I was supposed to go out again, and the old doorman said, ‘Better not—the hissers win!’”

Another patron, an elderly Italian princess, was less charitable than even the hissing half of the audience. “That young man should have been strangled at birth!” Barber overheard her say. But the reception wasn’t all bad, with at least one musician thinking very highly of the work. Walking about backstage after the final rehearsal for the piece, the composer was approached by a tuba player in the orchestra. “Maestro, I’ve been waiting for a tuba part like that for fifteen years!”

It seems that conductors elsewhere agreed with Barber when he chalked up the derision to the fact that “Italian audiences are not used to hearing much new music, and they’re not at all shy about showing their feelings.” Fewer than six weeks after the symphony’s prèmiere, it was given its American debut in Cleveland and in the next year became the first American work to be performed at the Salzburg Festival.

While on its surface the First Symphony breaks from tradition by being in one movement, that one movement is broken into four sections, and thus subtly adheres to the norm. The opening Allegro ma non troppo section introduces three themes: the main, a more lyrical second, and the closing. Barber develops these briefly, but manages to subvert symphonic standards by omitting the traditional recapitulation. Instead, he makes the three themes the foundations of his next three sections.

The first theme gets turned into a lively scherzo in which bright, pulsating strings quietly mark the beginning of the section before they are joined by the winds in a playful back-and-forth. The section builds to a blistering climax of pounded dissonant chords that is seemingly rescued by a triumphant fanfare, only to see that fanfare descend into the depths of the brass section (perhaps it was this writing that the Italian tuba player so loved).

The second theme becomes an oboe solo over gently-rocking muted strings in the third section, the Andante tranquillo that provides a tranquil reprieve after the fury of the previous section. The oboe eventually yields to plaintive strings, who are eventually joined by the rest of the orchestra in a grand lament.

Finally, the third theme from the opening becomes the basis for a passacaglia played by the cellos and basses. Over this repeated figure, the rest of the orchestra plays music that weaves together all three themes and thus, if only in spirit, provides the audience the recapitulation that had hitherto been missing.

Robert Lintott

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