Rothko and Americana Inspire Orchestral Works of Adam Schoenberg

Monday, February 27, 2017

'Adam Schoenberg: American Symphony, Finding Rothko, Picture Studies' 'Adam Schoenberg: American Symphony, Finding Rothko, Picture Studies' (Reference Recordings)

The Kansas City Symphony has just released an all-Schoenberg album, and it’s unlikely to be unappealing to the orchestra’s subscribers. The album features three works by the American composer Adam Schoenberg. Schoenberg possesses a directly approachable compositional idiom, marked by a sweet-toothed tonal language, widely spaced chords and generous orchestral textures.

Michael Stern, the Symphony’s music director, has long championed Schoenberg’s music, and commissioned each work on the album. Schoenberg completed Finding Rothko while a doctoral student at Juilliard, after discovering Mark Rothko’s paintings. Incited by Rothko’s consuming swaths of color, the work’s four movements – “Orange,” “Yellow,” “Red,” and “Wine” – trace a cinematic sweep, peaking with the fusillade of percussion and brass and the nervous swirl of high winds and strings in “Red.”

Another iconic American artist prompted Schoenberg to write his American Symphony: Aaron Copland, whose Symphony No. 3 Schoenberg first encountered in 2008, shortly after the election of Barack Obama. The five-movement American is a work of lofty aspirations. “Seeing that our country and world had needs similar to those of Copland’s time,” Schoenberg writes, “I was inspired to make a difference. I set out to write a modern American symphony that paid homage to our past and looked forward to a brighter future.” Two election cycles later, whether such an endeavor has civically moved the needle is questionable. Nevertheless, Schoenberg has produced an expertly crafted paean to American-ness. Its most stirring moments come in the meditative “White on Blue,” which may be heard equally as a wonder-filled gaze at a vast sky or at the stars spangling the American banner.

Schoenberg conceived of the final work on the album, Picture Studies, as a twenty-first-century answer to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Inspired by paintings of Albert Bloch, van Gogh, Kandinsky and Miró; photographs by Kurt Baasch, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Francis Blake; and a Calder sculpture, Schoenberg distills the potpourri of those artists’ disparate modernist aesthetics into a cohesive musical tapestry. Even at its most sturm-und-drang (the angular “Kandinsky”), Picture Studies is an amiable essay in 20th-century American neo-Romanticism, containing echoes of Samuel Barber and Howard Hanson (“Olive Orchard”), as well as shades of Bernsteinian showmanship (the jazz inflection of “Miró”).

Adam Schoenberg: American Symphony, Finding Rothko, Picture Studies
Reference Recordings | Released Jan. 20


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