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Concerto for orchestra

written to commemorate the centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1981

At the beginning of his career, Sessions’s music showed most clearly the influence of Stravinsky. But, very gradually, over a period of years, his work approached the twelve-tone system which he finally adopted in his late fifties (rather to his own surprise). And yet it is important to remember that the choice of ‘system’ is less significant than the musical intelligence behind it. His music has always been dense and highly active, filled with such a rich lode of detail that it cannot possibly be taken in at first hearing. Sessions himself has written: ‘I would prefer by far to write music which has something fresh to reveal at each new hearing than music which is completely self-evident the first time, and though it may remain pleasing makes no essential contribution thereafter’. At the same time, Sessions always sought ‘the long line’, a carefully planned continuity of musical gesture, built of complex interactions of tension and release that run from the beginning of the piece to the end, subordinating each detail, however attractive or striking it may be, to the shape and effect of the whole.

The Concerto for Orchestra, begun in 1979 and completed on 16 August 1981, is for large orchestra and is in three linked sections—Allegro, Largo, and Allegro maestoso. It is not at all like Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (which was also composed for the Boston Symphony, in 1943). Instead of sharp-cut, distinct, contrasting movements and the effect of spotlights playing on different sections or members of the orchestra in turn, there is a single, intricate poetic span. There are no specifically string episodes, although when the strings do carry the burden of the argument for a few measures the effect is beautiful. They join in tuttis but otherwise seldom play all together. Divisions of the family contribute individual lines to the texture and at times support the winds with doubling or by shaping a new melody culled from the notes of various wind parts. The important thing is the substance of the music and its eloquence and variety. It is by turn festive and lyrical, playful and noble, and it ends with a hymn that fades into beauty and mystery—an unusual sonority of oboe, clarinets, horns and tuba ebbing into the silence. A few composers in the history of music have, like Sessions, been active at 85 (Schütz, Verdi, Vaughan Williams); fewer have at that age composed music on this scale, characteristic of lifelong interests and aspirations, and remaining both a kind of summation, a journey done, and a continuing voyage of exploration.

The work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and cor anglais, two clarinets, E flat clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, cymbals, whip, snare drum, glockenspiel, chinese drum, military drum, tambourine, triangle, tamtam, tenor drum, wood block, harp and strings. The title-page bears the following inscription: ‘Concerto for Orchestra composed in celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Dedicated to Seiji Ozawa, in memory also of all his illustrious predecessors who built and maintained the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Roger Sessions 1979–81’.

The following note on the Concerto for Orchestra was provided by the composer:

This piece represents, first of all, an expression of gratitude for all that the Boston Symphony Orchestra has meant to me since I first heard it almost exactly seventy years ago. At that time I was fourteen years old, and for four seasons I was not only a subscriber and regular attendant at the Saturday evenIng concerts, but often attended the Friday afternoon ones as well. These were my first experiences of orchestral music, aside from two or three operatic performances which I had heard. Later, beginning In 1927, the Boston Symphony gave me a number of memorable performances of my own music, two of which (the First Symphony in 1927, and the Third in 1957, the latter composed for the orchestra’s seventy-fifth anniversary) were premieres. I have often said that the orchestral sound of the Boston Symphony as I first heard it impressed itself on my musical memory and strongly affected my own style of orchestral writing.
In this Concerto I wished to pay tribute not only to the orchestra as a whole but also to its various groups. Thus, in the first section, alternately playful and lyrical, the woodwinds play a very prominent role; this is followed by a slow section, introduced by a passage on the trumpet which rises from a low B through nearly two octaves to a high A flat. In this part, a solemn Largo, the brass instruments play the main role, beginning with the trombone, answered in turn by the horn and the trumpet. A contrasting middle sectIon extends the register by introducing the high woodwinds and more movement. After a climax the music of the previous Largo returns and gradually reaches the largest of the climaxes, which subsides as the trombones once more sound the A and G sharp with which the movement began. A trumpet call, a little like the one which introduced the first of the three sections, introduces the final section, which is festive in character. A short concluding statement, three phrases long, brings the piece to a quiet end.

from notes by Roger Sessions © 1981


Panufnik: Symphony No 8; Sessions: Concerto for orchestra

Track-specific metadata for CDH55100 track 3

Recording date
30 January 1981
Recording venue
Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Recording producer
Harold Lawrence
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
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