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American Symphony

Kansas City Symphony: American Symphony

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Stern has a keen appreciation for contemporary American composers, and his programming choices of new music with the Kansas City Symphony are consistently strong. Stern previously selected and performed new works for the Symphony and the IRIS Orchestra in Tennessee by Adam Schoenberg, a 30-year old Massachusetts native.

Schoenberg was back Friday with his American Symphony, commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony. The work received its world premiere at Friday’s concert. Stern brought the composer onstage to give a brief description of the work. Schoenberg identified a significant influence of American composer Aaron Copland, particularly his Third Symphony.

The composer was quick to point out that his American Symphony is not exactly a patriotic work.

“I began the work three years ago,” Schoenberg explained, “when our country was in a time of great need.”

The composition opened in very tonal fashion, with more than a hint of Latin flavor with pulsing and syncopated brass and percussion. The trumpet lines were unusually high and challenging. The second movement was very atmospheric, with vibratoless sustained strings, percussion carefully selected for its tonal color, and muted and unmuted brass. Stern directed with great sensitivity, adding shape and momentum to the music.

The central movement employed changing meters and unpredictable rhythms. Some of the melodies were riff-like and contained a hint of humor. Schoenberg described the fourth movement as a “prayer,” but it needed a bit more fervor. It began with a shimmering dissonant fabric with sensuous melodies played by oboist J. Scott Janusch and clarinetist Raymond Santos.

The finale was eclectic, electric and very enjoyable. The rhythms and dynamic levels intensified throughout the movement until it reached a dizzying peak at the end.

Schoenberg demonstrated a distinctive and exciting compositional voice. His American Symphony is bold and brilliant, and deserves to be a staple among orchestras in the U.S. and abroad.

Timothy McDonald, Kansas City Star
Published: March 5, 2011


Kansas City Symphony presents premiere of appealing new work

Adam Schoenberg’s American Symphony adopts an accessible style but does not stray so far into a Hollywood idiom that it grows cheesy. The agreeable new piece, a Kansas City Symphony commission, received its world premiere on March 4th at the Lyric Theatre, with the Symphony led by music director Michael Stern. If the finale felt prolix in proportion to the overall length of the symphony, the piece revealed the soul of a strong musician with a natural sense of melody, a playful knack for rhythm and a serious approach to orchestration. Inspired by the 2008 election and its implications for change in America, the symphony nevertheless eschews conventional patriotism: There is, happily, no rousing rendition of the National Anthem.

Yet Schoenberg makes more subtle allusions to Americana—his harmonic language is not far from Barber’s or Copland’s, with something of the former’s long-breathed melodicism and the latter’s open-spaced sonorities. There are also nods to Dimitri Tiomkin and other great film composers of old, as well as jaunts into spicy Latin American rhythms. “It’s supposed to make you smile, it’s an optimistic piece,” the composer said from the stage before the performance.

And the symphony delivered on that promise, beginning with the opening “Fanfare” with its infectious irregular rhythms and dense, if at times overly diffuse, textures. “White on Blue” was a nostalgic, atmospheric night-piece, with big loving themes and a chorale, even. The “Rondo” embarked on an uproarious romp with lots of percussion and busy filigree, while “Prayer” was a plangent, haunting meditation built on beautifully crafted melodies for oboe, clarinet and two intertwining cellos. “Stars, Stripes and Celebration” tries to get too much into a single movement—minimalist busywork, dance-like excursions, big brass exclamations—when a vigorous single idea might have concluded the work more satisfactorily. But the overall impression was strong. Schoenberg is just 30, and this is his first full-length symphony: There is reason to believe he has a very bright future in the orchestral realm.

Paul Horsley, The Independent
Published: March 5, 2011