The Kansas City Symphony under Michael Stern has recorded several outstanding CDs for the audiophile Reference Recordings label. But so far they’ve been recordings of composers of the past, like Benjamin Britten and Sir Edward Elgar.
Now the Symphony is embarking on its latest recording project, works by contemporary composer Adam Schoenberg. The Kansas City Symphony will perform Schoenberg’s works in a special recording preview concert on June 19.
The three works on the disc will be “Finding Rothko,” “American Symphony” and “Picture Studies.” Stern played a major role in commissioning all of the works, both for the Symphony and for his contemporary ensemble, the IRIS Orchestra, in Germantown, Tenn.
“We’ve had extraordinarily positive reaction when we played his music,” Stern said. “People really relate to it, and they can hear what they like in it immediately. Adam has a gift for color. There’s something very evocative about his music that sounds kind of distinctive right off the bat. He also has a lyrical gift. He wants music to sing.”
Schoenberg, 33, was born and raised in New Salem, Mass., a small town in the western part of the state. With a father who was a composer and arranger, Schoenberg grew up surrounded by music.
“Music has certainly been a part of my entire life,” he said. “I started playing piano at the age of 3, but I really didn’t seriously start composing until my sophomore year in college. I first went to Oberlin college, and after my first year I applied to transfer to the music conservatory. It was then that I got the composing bug. Although I’m a late bloomer, I have no complaints.”
In the baroque era, Jean-Philippe Rameau worked the latest toe-tapping dance rhythms into his operas, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven wove popular landler and minuets into their lofty scores. But the music of the concert hall and the music of the people became more rigidly divided by the end of the 19th century.
Recently, composers have again been blurring the lines between rarefied high art and more popular musical expressions. Schoenberg is one of those contemporary composers who finds the energy of pop culture inspiring.
“I listen to everything,” Schoenberg said. “There’s not one genre of music that I focus on. My greatest mentors at Juilliard (where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees) were Robert Beaser and John Corigliano. I’m also a great admirer of Henri Dutilleux. In many ways I think he was the greatest composer of the post-World War II era. But those are just composers of the classical genre.
“I’ve certainly been influenced by Radiohead, and lately I’ve been interested in electronic dance music, not so much for just the overall style, but in terms of the groove and the rhythm that can be translated into an orchestral environment.”
Young American composers use every possible influence, Stern said.
“Adam is influenced by everything that he hears. You can’t have come through the second half of the 20th century without American rock ’n’ roll having touched you.
“It redefined the landscape, and it’s left its mark on concert music, too. So if you listen to Radiohead and you listen to (Gyorgy) Ligeti and you listen to (Richard) Wagner and Mozart and you put them all together in a blender, something really interesting might come out.”
Stern has been a champion of Schoenberg’s music since he met the composer in 2003. Oddly enough, even though they were both in Aspen, Colo., for a summer music festival, it wasn’t music that brought them together.
“I first went to Aspen in the composition program, and then I started going back to work as a stagehand,” Schoenberg said.
“I loved going to their incredible music festival and I was getting paid to live in Aspen and I was able to go to every single concert when I wasn’t working, for free.
“So I was working backstage, and Michael introduced himself to me because word got around that I was a pretty serious tennis player, and he was looking for someone to play with. We started going to the tennis court for a couple of hours a few times a week, and that was the beginning of our friendship.”
Stern recalled that, “He seemed like a nice guy, insanely young and a much, much stronger tennis player than I. So after he wiped me off the court, we were sitting talking. I found out he was a composer, and, being curious about people and talent, I asked to see some scores that he had written, and that’s how it started.”
It has been a fruitful collaboration, with Stern commissioning three outstanding scores from Schoenberg over the past 10 years. The first was “Finding Rothko,” for the IRIS Orchestra. Schoenberg proposed the idea of writing a piece inspired by the colorful abstract paintings of Mark Rothko.
“He was besotted with the paintings of Rothko,” Stern said. “The paintings themselves are abstract and seemingly not that differentiated at first blush. But when you look carefully, there are enormous differences in the canvases.
“You can’t immediately define universally what makes one abstract painting distinctive over another, and yet, especially with the four that he chose, there’s so much emotion in the way Rothko uses color and the delineation of the abstract shapes that he uses on the canvas, that I could understand absolutely why Adam thought to string those four together into one cohesive work. It’s brilliant music.”
Stern’s next commission was in 2011 for the Kansas City Symphony. It was a time of historic change for the United States, with the first African-American president in office, and Schoenberg was inspired to write his “American Symphony.”
“I think all American composers have in the back of their minds that they want to show why they are American in terms of their music, reflecting that identity,” Stern said. “And this was Adam’s conscious attempt to try to write music of that moment. It’s not necessarily flag-waving. It’s not that kind of obvious attempt. But it’s music with real integrity and genuine feeling at that moment in our history, which was a watershed moment.”
“Picture Studies” was commissioned by Stern as a tribute to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Stern and Schoenberg imagined it as an updating Modest Mussorgsky’s famous “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
“That also worked out really well,” Stern said. “You hear how he’s changing his language a little bit. It’s more evolved. He’s getting more and more comfortable writing for a large orchestra. He exploits the capabilities and the colors of the orchestra to better and better effect.
“The other thing is that ‘Rothko’ is a shorter work with four sections, and ‘Picture Studies’ is a longer work that uses several different works of art. ‘Picture Studies’ changes direction more frequently than ‘Rothko.’ It’s a little bit like a theme and variations. Every variation has to be linked to the others and yet each has to make a discrete, individual statement.”
According to Schoenberg, who is also a full-time composition faculty member of the University of California, Los Angeles and the father of a 9-month-old son, making a living as a composer has at times been quite a struggle. But having his orchestral music recorded by the Kansas City Symphony on the illustrious Reference Recordings label makes those struggles all worthwhile and is “a dream come true.”
“There are a lot of different emotions that happen in all of the works, and I think it’s going to be a pretty powerful CD,” Schoenberg said. “My music is so layered. In ‘American Symphony’ eight different layers are happening.
“Sometimes in an orchestral hall, orchestration can appear a little muddy, but I know the piece so well, I can discern all the lines. But now we’re going to have it mixed and recorded so we’ll really be able to bring out each of these layers. I can’t wait to hear how that gets translated into a recording. I think it’s going to be very, very special.”
7 p.m. June 19. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $9. 816-471-0400 or www.kcsymphony.org.
Nothing makes for more pleasant listening on a summer evening than a lovely wind serenade. The gentle, breezy music is so refreshing.
The Kansas City Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bruce Sorrell will perform two of the greatest wind serenades Friday at Unity Temple on the Plaza.
Sorrell, who is a master of this repertoire, will conduct Antonin Dvorak’s Wind Serenade in D Minor and Mozart’s Wind Divertimento in F. Compositions by Charles Gounod and Kurt Weill are also on the agenda.
8 p.m. Friday. Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. $15-$35 816-960-1324 or www.kcchamberorchestra.org.