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Samuel Adler (b1928)

Symphony No 6 & Cello Concerto

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, José Serebrier (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: September 2015
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: June 2016
Total duration: 59 minutes 3 seconds

Cover artwork: The first abstract watercolour by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Bridgeman Art Library, London

Conducting legend José Serebrier directs the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a programme of works by the hugely influential American composer Samuel Adler which includes the first recording of his Symphony No 6—classical music which, while challenging, is rewarding at every turn.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'The American composer Samuel Adler's sixth symphony is so loud, frantic and brilliantly exciting it will blow you across the room' (The Observer)» More

'The sixth symphony of Samuel Adler, performed and recorded here for the first time, is clearly a work of considerable and sustained musical worth' (MusicWeb International)

'This is impassioned music that is concurrently constructed meticulously and developed' (Classical Source)» More

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A composer is often asked what does music or in particular your music mean? The great composer Felix Mendelssohn had a typically romantic answer to that question when he commented: ‘Music means those things that are too precious to put into words’. This is a very beautiful and meaningful comment, but it would not be my answer. I rather feel that a composer expresses in his or her music what life feels like. In life there are many variables and how one feels at any given time is constantly in flux. I try to express these many different feelings in my music. Often I am inspired by poetry or literature, other times by nature or something that is happening at the time of composition. Sometimes the personalities of the individuals or groups for whom I write my pieces for inspires the feeling of the work.

My Sixth Symphony was written in the year 1984–85 under a grant from the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation of the Library of Congress and is dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky. It was composed for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra whose Music Director at the time was David Zinman, a very close friend of mine. After the work was completed, Zinman said that he could not schedule it until several seasons later. Unfortunately, he left his position in Baltimore before it was premiered and the piece unfortunately remained unperformed. It happens quite often today that most orchestras do not want to perform a work by a living composer which was not commissioned by them. This was the case with my Sixth Symphony. This recording is both the premiere performance and recording of this work. I am so very grateful to the management of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and maestro José Serebrier for finally bringing this work to life.

My Fourth and Fifth Symphonies are in four and five movements respectively, but this symphony goes back to the form of my first two symphonies and has three movements. I was inspired by the idea of feeling the energy of our time. The first movement (marked ‘Fast and with much excitement’) pulsates from beginning to end only interrupted occasionally by a woodwind solo or a lyrical passage by the strings of the orchestra. However most of the time, the orchestra and especially the brass choir, forges ahead with great energy.

The second movement greatly contrasts the first. It is quite mysterious; the character is reminiscent of the eerie feeling one experiences when leaves unexpectedly rustle. There are sudden lyrical passages which are evocative of children’s songs. I’ve always been interested in these types of passages and the role they can play; in this movement they occur just before a great outburst from the orchestra. This leads to a calming of the mood and a quiet mysterious close. In the last movement we have again a burst of incredible energy introduced by a brass fanfare. A constantly changing beat gives the movement an unsettled feeling. One should never sense any doom, only an overcoming of vicissitudes by sheer energy and optimism. The tempo marking for this final movement is ‘Fast and rhythmic’; it never lets up until a very dynamic climax at the end.

I was a professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York for thirty years. In the late 1980s the administration of the school started to give honorary doctorates to outstanding conductors. When the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi and its Principal Cellist, Stephen Geber were both granted this honour, the orchestra and the Eastman School jointly commissioned me to write a concerto to mark the event. Geber had been a graduate of the Eastman School and was honoured for his twenty-five year anniversary as Principal Cellist of the orchestra and as an outstanding alumnus of the school. The work was premiered at the Eastman School and then performed three times by the Cleveland Orchestra.

I had heard Geber play several times and have always loved writing for the cello, therefore this commission was a welcomed event for me. I decided to write a work in four movements. The first movement is a lyrical introduction for the cello. It starts at first with very little orchestral interplay, followed by an increased involvement with an orchestral outburst before calming down into the lyrical ‘singing’ of the cello. The second movement begins with a solo percussion passage leading to a scherzo-like main section which introduces the main material of the movement. I consider this a fun movement that involves a bit of humor and jazz elements, with the cello being accompanied by pizzicato double basses and a drum set. This scherzo is followed by the third movement that could be referred to as a meditation. The cello plays very free, non-rhythmic gestures, often only accompanied by an ostinato celesta figure. Towards the end of this movement, other orchestral instruments give the freewheeling cello a bit of support but the movement ends very quietly with the cello sustaining a lonely single pitch. A rousing finale then follows.

A concerto to me is a dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The Italian origin of the word actually means ‘fighting side by side’. While I always hope this is a peaceful fight, I try to have the soloist and the orchestra act as equal partners and that is the case in this final movement. The form is a rondo, meaning that a recognizable theme occurs frequently in the piece. This theme or gesture is followed each time by a contrasting section. However, the ‘wild and furious’ tempo marking of the entire movement certainly gives it its character from beginning to end. Both the soloist as well as the orchestra are kept busy throughout and the work ends in triumph.

Drifting on winds and currents was commissioned by the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra and financed by Dr Lewis Aronow in memory of his wife Gladys. As soon as I received the commission I wrote to the Music Director of the orchestra, Dr David Itkin and asked for a way of getting in touch with Dr Aronow. Once I’d made contact, Dr Aronow wrote to me about his late wife and her love for music and literature. At the time I was reading a book of poems by Louise Glück and came across a poem which had a line about our life being constant, as if drifting on winds and currents. To me that meant that we have calm as well as tempestuous times in our lives. This also seemed to go along with the description of Gladys’ life. After the first performance, Mrs Aronow’s husband and children enthusiastically told me that they felt this work captured the very nature of their mother which made me very happy.

The work took the form of a short tone poem with two contrasting sections. The beginning creates a calm atmosphere; the rustling strings and their first outburst reminds the listener that even in calm waters there is always an undertone of anxiety or unrest, yet the section as a whole is lyrical and I would say rather soothing. I have always felt that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are the most exciting times to be alive. Even though we have had some rough times, we are living in a period of great strides and new adventures which are constantly challenging us. Driven by this enthusiasm, the second section is exciting and energetic without being in any way harsh. The brass section introduces the predominant musical idea before tossing it over to the other sections, giving direction to the forward-striving energy of the piece. It ends as it began in a burst of optimistic expression and conclusion.

Samuel Adler © 2016

American music is not just one thing; it is not Charles Ives or John Cage or Steve Reich or Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt alone, although they are all significant beacons of light. American music cannot and should not be reduced to a series of ‘isms’, tempting as this is for critics to do. The sweet spots of depth, texture and substance are those singular voices who work between the lines, creating art of striking and uncompromising vision. These visions come in all flavours in our present world. Young composers working in the twenty-first century where history has become flattened, who have been brought up in pop culture and world music, hybridize and synthesize wildly disparate idioms with the freest of hands. Composers born or trained in the early twentieth century have had a more circumscribed set of influences. The three orchestral works of Samuel Adler recorded here may be very different from each other, but they all contain his distinct DNA. This recording represents a cross section of his musical fingerprints. Embracing a wide expressive spectrum with ease and visceral power, he merges twenty-first century ebullience with an almost classical economy and equipoise. For those unfamiliar with Adler’s catalogue, this album is a great entrance point; for those who are, it adds a valuable first hearing of his Symphony No 6. For listeners of every stripe, it offers contemporary classical music which, while challenging, is rewarding at every turn.

What strikes me immediately upon listening to the premiere performance and recording of Symphony No 6 is the directness and economy of its rhetoric. Adler’s language, while clearly in the path of mainstream American symphonist tradition, finds its niche in a synthesis of neoclassicism and free chromaticism, occupying that elusive middle ground. But there is nothing middling about the clarity of line, transparency of orchestration or athletic leanness of the music. His lines are full of short, tightly wound bursts of energy, unfolding in logical and carefully argued essays. Musical dialogues are populated with a kaleidoscopic series of events, which become tethered together and bundled in aggregate towards a unified formal whole. In his Concerto for cello and orchestra, Adler creates a wide emotional and expressive palette for the soloist. He dresses the interplay of soloist and orchestra in traditional concerto-like combative garb, both in the lyrical first and third movements—which embrace eerie, celeste-tinged and meditative atmospherics—and in the balancing movements where the cello is given plenty of room for kinetic virtuosity and fireworks. Drifting on wind and currents, a memorial tone-poem inspired by the poetry of Louise Glück, rounds off the album. The work’s beginning, with its serenely expressive floating string lines, quickly yields to fast-paced pyramids of bold brass dynamism.

Sometimes the connection between a composer’s music and a composer’s life can be enigmatic. Not so in the case of Adler. Having had the chance to serve alongside him for eighteen years at the Juilliard School, I can say without question that the man is the music. I also had the great good fortune to be present at the recording sessions in Glasgow as the remarkable RSNO brought his Sixth Symphony to life for the very first time. Adler’s energy and optimism are legendary. His life story, his vital engagement with all facets of twentieth and twenty-first century music as a composer, teacher, scholar and performer, his commitment to the highest standards in all aspects of the craft of composition, his infectious warmth, wit, and the sheer fecundity and range of his musical catalogue, all add up to a creative life being lived richly and fully.

Robert Beaser © 2016

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