Adam Schoenberg: American Symphony / Finding Rothko / Picture Studies
Reference Recordings

There's something distinctly American about Adam Schoenberg's music, and it's not just because one of the pieces on this recording bears the title American Symphony. Largely tonal, melodically rich, and rhythmically robust, the music by the Northampton, Massachusetts-born and Los Angeles-based composer evidences little connection to either the twelve-tone approach championed by the earlier Schoenberg or the ‘Sturm und Drang' style of German Romanticism, even if there's no shortage of rousing moments and mood contrasts in the three works featured. If any composer looms large as a point of reference, it's Aaron Copland, though there are moments when one might be reminded of Ives and Adams, too. Put simply, Schoenberg's music is more Bernstein than Berio.

Don't make the mistake of thinking, however, that just because it's accessible, it's simple. There's craft aplenty in these works, in both the compositional writing and orchestration departments, plus an attention to detail that makes them all the more rewarding. There's a deceptive quality to the music, too, in that a piece that appears relatively uncomplicated upon closer examination reveals layers of complexity that speak to its sophistication. Credit must also be given to the Kansas City Symphony and its musical director Michael Stern for bringing the composer's music so vividly to life.

Born in 1980, Schoenberg is an Oberlin graduate who earned his Master's and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from Juilliard, where he studied with Robert Beaser and John Corigliano. The latter's impact on Schoenberg's development is revealed in an anecdote recounted by the composer himself, who recalled meeting with Corigliano during his second year of doctoral studies while composing the four-part Finding Rothko. With the work in its final draft stage, the two analyzed and discussed the material for hours over a four-day period, and in Schoenberg's words, “We went over each measure linearly and vertically, and what I learned was immeasurable.” With its third movement written almost entirely using graphic notation, the piece also shows how much is happening below the surface in a typical Schoenberg setting.

The aforementioned American character is reflected directly in two of the works, the American Symphony, obviously, but also Finding Rothko, which of course draws for inspiration from the work of the Abstract Expressionist. Like it, the third piece, Picture Studies, uses visual art as a creative touchstone, though in this case the artists originate not only from America (Alexander Calder) but from other parts of the world (Vincent van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky). Each part in the fifteen-minute Finding Rothko, the earliest of the three works, is titled after a work by the painter and as such encompasses a cumulatively broad emotional and dynamic range. Strings and woodwinds lend the luminous opening movement, “Orange,” a decidedly plaintive air, and even at this early juncture the music's Copland-esque quality is audible; in an arrangement that veritably sparkles, the second, “Yellow,” showcases Schoenberg's considerable gift for orchestration, whereas the third, “Red,” captures his dramatic side.

Inspiration of a different kind led to the writing of the five-movement American Symphony, specifically the 2008 presidential election, whose promise of change and spirit of hope Schoenberg wished to convey in musical form. After opening with a rousing fanfare, the second movement opts for an atmospheric presentation design to mirror a country's need to reflect upon its values, sense of purpose, and future direction. The buoyant third movement departs from the serious tone of the second for a breezy three-minute ride, after which the fourth, a prayer-like homage to fellow American composers Barber and Gershwin, reinstates the ponderous mood of the second and the jubilant fifth takes the work out on a celebratory note.

Picture Studies emerged out of a 2011 commission to compose a 21st-century Pictures at an Exhibition, a key difference between the two being Mussorgsky's decision to base all of his movements on the work of Viktor Hartmann and Schoenberg's choice to use works by different visual artists (photographers, painters, and sculptors) as a springboard. The move paid creative dividends as it granted him the freedom to explore new compositional terrain, and consequently Picture Studies is not surprisingly the most varied in style and mood of the three works on the recording. “Olive Orchard” sees him dabbling in Impressionism, while the aggressive “Kandinsky,” what with its stabbing horn and percussive blasts, plays more like an homage to composer Bernard Herrmann than the Russian abstract painter. Though “Miro” follows “Calder's World,” vast distances separate the jazz-like, clarinet-driven swing of the former and the quasi-aleatoric atmospherics of the latter.

To say Schoenberg has a promising future is an understatement: he's currently working on commissions for a number of American orchestras and has also established himself as a film composer; to date, he's scored several short and two feature-length films, including Graceland, which he co-wrote with his father, Steven Schoenberg. This fine premiere collection of his orchestral works is certainly something of which he has every reason to be proud.

March 2017