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KC Symphony showcases Adam Schoenberg, composer of the future

KC Symphony showcases Adam Schoenberg, composer of the future

Adam Schoenberg, a young composer at the beginning of his professional career, has a goal for his creative happiness.

“My dream would be to score one feature film and write one major orchestral work each year,” Schoenberg said in a recent interview from his Los Angeles home.

Schoenberg, 30, wrote his dissertation on movie composer Thomas Newman, so he’s a student of the genre as well as a fan. And it turns out he’ll soon be working on music for an independent feature, though, alas, it’s more or less an unpaid gig.

As for the other side of the dream, this week brings a great leap forward when the Kansas City Symphony premieres his recently completed “American Symphony.” It’s Schoenberg’s first professional, full-length symphony. Along with the musical accomplishment, it represents a continuing relationship with the local orchestra and with music director Michael Stern.

They met at the Aspen Music Festival in 2003. Three years later, Stern gave Schoenberg his first commission, inviting him to create a work for the IRIS Orchestra in Tennessee, which Stern founded a decade ago. That was “Finding Rothko,” a 16-minute, four-part meditation on the paintings of Mark Rothko.

The next year, Stern and the Symphony played an earlier Schoenberg piece, the atmospheric “Translucent Thoughts,” which prompted The Star’s critic to note “the composer’s gifts for orchestral color and mood-setting.” And after Schoenberg told Stern a while back that he was writing his first symphony — “at the time, Michael was my only musical ally” — he got a call from the Symphony’s executive director, Frank Byrne, commissioning the work for this season.

“I believe in Adam’s talent,” Stern said by e-mail last week. “I think he belongs to a dynamic group of young composers that will help to shape the future of music in this country.” —- Lyric Theatre, November 2010. The Symphony is taking an early run-through of Schoenberg’s “American Symphony,” four months ahead of the winter premiere. The piece is perhaps 90 percent completed, and this kind of advance look at a new work is almost unheard of.

In one passage, Schoenberg is not sure he’s happy with what he’s hearing from the percussion, so he got a chance to work directly with Chris McLaurin, the Symphony’s principal percussionist. McLaurin is one of several Symphony players Schoenberg got to know when they all lived in Miami. Schoenberg, who wrote several parts with his friends in mind, had talked with McLaurin about this section, where he felt the sound of the glockenspiel was not quite magical enough.

“I had written some added gestures that were doubled with glockenspiel, harp and occasionally flutes and celesta,” Schoenberg recounted. “Chris played what I initially wrote for the reading in his studio and then talked about adding crotales” — an array of small antique cymbals — “into the mix. We then went to the hall, and he simultaneously played the crotales and glockenspiel to show me the difference. It was great, and I immediately made the change.” Schoenberg’s “American Symphony” is one of 157 premieres scheduled this season by 84 orchestras in North America (both numbers are down from a year earlier). Almost always, the musicians see the music for the first time only a few days before the concert.

“Most times when you have a world premiere,” Schoenberg said, “you show up the week of the concert and have two or three rehearsals and that’s it. Maybe you have to stay up all night, if you change something.” Schoenberg credits Byrne with helping to make the early session happen.

“To my mind it’s almost unprecedented in the world of art,” Byrne said, “not having the opportunity to evaluate and revise prior to going public with a work.” Before they reach their audiences, manuscripts go through an editorial process, stage plays often get launched in the boondocks (Byrne’s word) and a painting can be painted over multiple times.

“The opportunity to get one-on-one feedback from the players about the feasibility of certain things, the contour of the music, technical challenges and musical challenges, I think was wonderful,” Byrne said.

“And the one thing that struck me was how well it went, how smooth and well-put-together it was even at that point. He had done a wonderful job of putting on paper what was in his mind.” —- Schoenberg grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts, son of creative parents. His mother writes children’s books. His father plays piano and composes for musical theater, movies and television. His sister is an actress.

Dark-haired and boyishly handsome (we had our conversation by video on Skype), Schoenberg played soccer at Oberlin College and didn’t get serious about composing until his sophomore year. Later, at Juilliard, he studied with Robert Beaser and John Corigliano.

“Corigliano’s Chaconne to ‘The Red Violin’ has some of the most beautiful melodic writing of the 20th century,” Schoenberg said.

That’s a hint to the kind of storytelling sound Schoenberg aspires to, and he also points to the poetic Frenchman Henri Dutilleux and Thomas Newman, who scored “The Shawshank Redemption,” “American Beauty” and many other films, as composers he admires.

In school he shied away from the archly academic avant-garde, choosing instead a path suggested by his father.

“My father said, ‘Adam, write what’s in your heart. Learn as much as you can from your teachers, but when they ask you to compose a piece of music, close your eyes, and listen to what’s inside of you.’ That’s who you are as a composer.” His work tends to be closer to the lyrical likes of Aaron Copland, to whom he pays homage in “American Symphony,” than to the tougher, serial soundscapes of, say, Arnold Schoenberg, yes a namesake but no relation.

“But I am related,” he said, “to Gershwin on my father’s side, through marriage.” Along with Stern, Schoenberg has found another champion in Robert Spano, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned him for three works, including a large piece for orchestra and chorus. He is a member of the Atlanta School, a coterie of composers, including Jennifer Higdon and Osvaldo Golijov, who are being encouraged to write new works for the Georgia orchestra and beyond.
Unlike other artistic “schools,” the Atlanta group can hardly be pinned down as creating a unified sound.

“The Atlanta School of Composers is made up of very different composers,” Schoenberg said, “who all write music that can be lyrical and tonally centered. As human beings, our access to the harmonies of the universe is infinite, so there is much to be explored, musically, by all of us.

“Music isn’t meant to be verbalized, but rather felt! We are creating an experience — I like to think of it as an emotional journey — that unfolds over a specified duration. Writing music that is built in tonal, modal or even in jazz, funk and pop principles does not mean that our music sounds the same. We all communicate our use of the language in our own way.” Schoenberg’s work so far has appeared on only one commercial recording — a two-disc set released last fall by the American Brass Quintet. Samples of his music can be heard at his website (, including “Up!,” a fanfare that premiered in November in Atlanta and, in somewhat different form, appears as the first movement of “American Symphony.” “Obviously,” he said, “it’s too early to tell where I’m heading, but I do think you can recognize my sound.” —- Schoenberg began thinking about “American Symphony” around the time of the 2008 elections, and though, he says, it’s not meant to be political or patriotic, it “is a symphony for hope.” The 25-minute work not only speaks to the narrative of American optimism, it also reflects a conscious reading of the state of classical music and audiences today. Its five movements are relatively short and unabashedly tonal, adding up to an experience not nearly as taxing on the modern attention span as an hourlong piece of Beethoven or Mahler.

“I set out to write an optimistic piece that will hopefully bring more beauty into the world, even if it lasts for only 25 minutes,” Schoenberg said. “I wanted to celebrate the greatness of our country, and also be thankful for what we have.” Based on snippets I’ve heard, the work begins with exuberance — the Coplandesque fanfare — and ranges from light meditative moments to sparing dissonance to picturesque passages that seem conscious of a grand landscape.

“This is a freestanding work of art,” said Byrne, “that expresses personal beliefs about our nation, its future, who he is as a person and who he is as a composer.” Disarming any suggestion that listenable music is somehow less serious, Byrne said, “There is nothing wrong with tonal music or music that is accessible. I don’t honestly think there is virtue in making music difficult to listen to. That can in its own way become artifice and become very false.” Like “Finding Rothko” and “Translucent Thoughts” before it, “American Symphony” exemplifies Schoenberg’s skill as a musical architect, clearly delineating structure and intention, Stern said.

“He has an original voice, and he continues to deepen his craft,” Stern said. “The ‘American Symphony’ shows his communicative skill. It is atmospheric, lyrical, meditative and propulsive by turns, and I think it is going to have a deep resonance with our audience.” For his part, Schoenberg says he’s telling a story.

“Music is about reaching people and about connecting with people. For the symphony, I knew I wanted it to end big and also to end more open. Today as a country we’re still figuring ourselves out. You know the piece is over, but it leaves a question mark in your mind.

“I think my music is a reflection of today, and I am always pleased when I am told that it resonates with someone. In the end, I believe that the music I write is for the people. It’s something that I know deep down I have to do in order to feel fulfilled, but the outcome and musical experience go way beyond me.” Schoenberg is devoted to his family. Last week he sat for days on end with his dying grandfather. This week, he expects a gathering here for his symphony premiere. So it’ll be a bittersweet occasion.

He only recently moved to Los Angeles, to join his fiancee, Janine Salinas, a playwright and screenwriter; they’d met at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire last fall as Schoenberg was working on the “American Symphony.” They hope eventually to collaborate not only in marriage but on an opera and a film. And now his parents will meet her parents for the first time right here on the eve of his Kansas City concert.

For some reason, it sounds a little like a movie.

Steven Paul, Kansas City Star
Published: Feb 27, 2011