Two celebrations of Samuel Jones by the Seattle Symphony

07/06/2011

Jones, Liszt, Shostakovich, and Schoenfield : Gerard Schwarz (conductor), William Wolfram (piano), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 2.6.2011; Samuel Jones Celebration: Members of the Seattle Symphony and guests, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 3.6.2010 (BJ)

In the run up (or should I say run down?) to his final concerts in mid-June as music director, Gerard Schwarz led the first of two that qualified as both celebration and farewell. The Thursday subscription concert featured the premiere of Reflections: Songs of Fathers and Daughters, the latest contribution to the orchestra’s repertoire from the pen of Samuel Jones, who steps down at the end of this season after 14 years as the Seattle Symphony’s composer-in-residence. The following evening witnessed a special chamber concert given by orchestra members and guests in avowed celebration of Jones’s 75th birthday, though the designation seemed a trifle mathematically challenged, since he had actually turned 76 on the Thursday.

There is a widely held notion that people who commission art ought to stay away from any stipulations about what the art should be like. Charles and Benita Staadecker will have none of this. When they commissioned Samuel Jones a couple of years ago to write a tuba concerto, they asked specifically for a piece that would pay tribute to Mr. Staadecker’s alma mater, Cornell. This time, joining forces with David E. Gannett, Jerald Farley, Michael and Leslie Whalen, and Robert and Gail Stagman, they asked for a work that celebrates “the special relationship between fathers and daughters.”

The approach seems to me eminently sensible. It restores to music its status as something that is of real use and real interest to real people, and of course, if the stipulations are not to his liking, a composer can always say “no” to the commission. Jones, however, clearly relished the assignment. “All I had to do,” he said, “was to describe the joy I feel as the father of my own two beautiful daughters,” who were present to enjoy the result with the rest of us.

Playing for eighteen minutes, Reflections is a blend of tone poem with orchestral suite, and it is characteristic of Jones’s work in that it is approachable without being simplistic. This is the kind of new work that feels as if it has always been there – not because it is unoriginal, though certainly there are occasional echoes in this work of Mahler and Strauss, but because it takes its place effortlessly in a living tradition. Tonal in language, Reflections has delicacy, grace, and warmth, and the orchestra seemed to enjoy it as much as the audience did.

It was preceded on the program by Freilach, Paul Schoenfield’s contribution to the series of Gund/Simonyi Farewell Commissions that has been running all season in honor of the departing music director. The Yiddish title denotes happy music, the obvious etymological link being with the German adjective “fröhlich,” from which the English word “frolic” derives. A frolic was exactly what we were treated to, and Schwarz and the orchestra tossed off the five-minute piece with insouciant brilliance.

William Wolfram was the soloist in Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. If not quite rivaling the nobility Sviatoslav Richter used to elicit from the work, this was nevertheless a performance of admirable poise and solidity, and Wolfram’s sensitivity in the lyrical slow passages was finely supported by Eric Gaenslen’s solo cello.

Ending the evening, Schwarz’s reading of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony began with a first movement even more obsessively tight-lipped than usual, so that the scherzo – no joke! – that follows came as an utterly logical release of tension. There was some superb solo work from Scott Goff, Ben Hausmann, Laura DeLuca, and Seth Krimsky on the woodwinds, and from associate concertmaster Emma McGrath. Though a tad short of his usual massive security, John Cerminaro filled the horn proclamations in the third movement with poetry. As a group, too, the horns mustered awe-inspiring power, and the brass, percussion and string sections all contributed to a performance as exciting as it was expressively probing.

Presented in Benaroya’s smaller Nordstrom Recital Hall, the Friday chamber concert was an altogether more intimate, family affair. The program offered a conspectus of Jones’s chamber music ranging in date across more than four decades. Four Haiku, suitably epigrammatic settings of poems by John Stone that Jones made in 1959, were neatly sung by mezzo-soprano Jenny Knapp with Adam Stern at the piano, and soprano Christina Siemens and boy soprano Benjamin Richardson, again with Stern, were charming in three excerpts from a 1979 one-act opera based on Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory.

Kimberly Russ, the orchestra’s own pianist, gave a cleanly focused performance of the Piano Sonata from 1961-62, whose central slow siciliano provided effective contrast to two fast outer movements that make rhythmically inventive play with bitonality. Russ also joined Julian Schwarz, Gerard’s brilliantly accomplished cellist son, in a characteristically rich-toned and eloquent reading of the 1996 Cello Sonata. And given that Jones is leaving his composer-in-residence post but will continue as director of the orchestra’s Young Composers Workshop, there was special appropriateness in the programming of Janus – named after the Roman god with two profiles facing in opposite directions – as a way of looking simultaneously toward past and future. Jones assembled it in 1998 by adding a new piece titled In Prospect to In Retrospect, written some forty years earlier soon after the start of his career. On this occasion, the composite work was heard in a chamber version arranged by Jones in collaboration with Adam Stern, who played the piano part. He was joined by violinists Emma McGrath and Michael Miropolsky, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi, cellist Eric Gaenslen, and bassist Jordan Anderson in a performance that ended the evening on a note of typically Jonesian lyricism.

It may be said that Samuel Jones does not possess the kind of intensely individual voice that makes a composer’s work instantly recognizable – listen, for example, to the first half-dozen notes of a piece by, say, Beethoven, Brahms, or Strauss, or closer to our own time by Shostakovich or the shamefully underrated Andrzej Panufnik, and you will know at once who wrote it. But if Jones does not quite measure up to that criterion, his music still evinces a strongly personal character, compounded of communicative warmth, grace of expression, warmth, spontaneity, and unpompous seriousness, all back by sovereign technical command. Such a combination is rare enough in the music of our time to be richly worth celebrating.

Bernard Jacobson

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