Beyond Autumn, a critically acclaimed work by Joseph Schwantner.

William Scharnberg

(Excerpted from the original article which appeared in the pdf November 1999 issue of The Horn Call)


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Jospeh Schwantner

An important ten-year project has finally come to fruition and it is with great pleasure that I was asked to review the premiere of the first major concerto commissioned by the International Horn Society. The courage of the officers and members of the IHS Advisory Council over the course of the past decade, any one of whom could have bailed out on this project, should be lauded. It was a great gamble, but with the International Horn Society's mighty financial and artistic bow and Joseph Schwantner's true compositional arrow, we have hit the bull's-eye!

Thursday evening, September 30, 1999, in the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas, a beautiful building designed by I. M. Pei, an audience gathered for a performance by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, including the premiere of Beyond Autumn: Poem for Horn and Orchestra by Joseph Schwantner. Also on the menu were Haydn's Symphony No. 82 and Tchaikowsky's Symphony No. 2, wisely programmed to contrast the premiere and afford the orchestra a good amount of rehearsal time on the difficulties of the new concerto. The soloist was Gregory Hustis and the conductor, Andrew Litton.

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Gregory Hustis

DSO program annotator Laurie Shulman included both a profile of the composer and excellent program notes in the evening's Stagebill. Here are excerpts from both sections:

Schwantner's career settled into a success mode early. After completing his formal education at the Chicago Conservatory and Northwestern University, he secured his academic appointment at the Eastman School of Music in 1970, when he was 27. He received an enormous boost in 1979, when his orchestral score, Aftertones of Infinity, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Soon afterward, Leonard Slatkin invited Schwantner to be composer-in-residence at the Saint Louis Symphony, a position he held from 1982 to 1985. These were key years for Schwantner for a couple reasons. Slatkin is renowned as a conductor who champions new music and American music. Under his direction, the Saint Louis Symphony played, recorded, and toured nearly every work Schwantner had then written for orchestra. As a result, Schwantner's music acquired a familiarity among players and audience members that is rare in today's world.

Schwantner explained, “Basically, I've written orchestral music for well over twenty years, so I've been thinking about the orchestra a lot. Writing for orchestra continues to fascinate me because of the great range of sounds. I'm a composer who has always been interested in the timbral aspect of music. The orchestra provides this extraordinary panoply of styles, a reservoir of sounds that one can employ. I find the medium enormously rewarding for my own work, and feel that I still have something to say.”

During the 1990s, Schwantner has embarked on a series of solo concerti that are presenting him with a new angle on writing symphonic music. He is exploring the issue of balance between soloist and orchestra, and the challenge of composing an orchestral role more substantive than just accompaniment. Beyond Autumn, Schwantner's horn concerto is one of several works that will receive first performances this season. He began his “cycle' with a percussion concerto that was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. Dallas audiences will have another opportunity to hear Schwantner's music during the 2000-2001 subscription season, when his new organ concerto will be performed by the winner of the second triennial Dallas International Organ Competition to be held this spring here in the Meyerson. He has also been commissioned to write a violin concerto for Anne Akiko Meyers and the National Symphony Orchestra.

“Now I face the immediate challenge of having to deal with concerted pieces back-to-back without relief,” he says. “The fact that the solo instruments are so different provides relief from simply writing one continuos piece. But I do have a feeling that we composers are preoccupied with some general compositional issues that we keep mulling over. There's a larger continuity to our pieces, and the double bar is almost a matter of convenience. Sometimes one's ideas don't come to full fruition in one work, but certain questions may be answered in subsequent pieces. That's what gives rise to a composer's voice. You deal with the raw musical material in an idiosyncratic way, and that defines who you are as a composer. I still believe those qualities are important in music.”

Born March 22, 1943 in Chicago, Illinois, Joseph Schwantner has a history of linking powerful poetic images with his music. His work list includes few traditional titles like symphony, sonata, or quartet, but instead comprises evocative names like Distant Runes and Incantations, A Sudden Rainbow, and Dreamcaller. Clearly this is a composer with imagination, strong interest in language and literature, and a vivid sense of imagery. In terms of his music, that has translated to bright instrumental color and a keen interest in the sound-range of individual instruments. That thinking is very much in evidence in Beyond Autumn, Schwantner's newest score, which receives its world-premiere performances this weekend. The work is subtitled “Poem for Horn and Orchestra.” The poem in question appears at the head of the score.

Beyond Autumn...

the willow's mist

bathes the shadowed land,

in a distant past

long forgotten.

Schwantner is the author, as he was for the poem that served as the starting point for his Pulitzer Prize-winning score, Aftertones of Infinity (1978). “The poem provides the poetic impulse that suggests musical analogues,” he observes. “There's a close affinity between images evoked by poetry and a wellspring of musical ideas that come out of those images. Certainly in the case of Beyond Autumn, I was also thinking about the nature of the horn and its capabilities. It's an instrument with an enormous range of dynamics and expressive potential. One the one hand it can be heroic, powerful, bold and brassy. On the other hand, it has this extraordinary ability to be intimate, and to sound distant.”

According to soloist Gregory Hustis, Schwantner has achieved all these qualities in Beyond Autumn. “Its message is strength, sadness, and nobility,” says Hustis. “The biggest challenge is trying to capture the dramatic flavor. This is not, from a technical standpoint, the most difficult horn concerto ever written, although it requires considerable stamina. Schwantner asks for tremendous freedom. He is more concerned that the mood and expression come through rather than demanding a literal rendition of the notes as written. He is insistent with some of his themes. I think that forces the listener to be thoughtful.”

Hustis considers that the orchestra is a partner with the soloist, as is the horn section. Schwantner calls for the horns to be placed front stage left, where the celli usually are. “The idea is to put a visual and sonic emphasis on the horns in general,” the composer says, “and more specifically on the soloist.” He achieves the latter by placing the soloist offstage at the beginning of Beyond Autumn, and exiting to a recessional at the conclusion. Schwantner explains: “Even when the horn is among us, it is capable of this lontano (far-away) sound. So, the piece starts with a brief introduction and the first horn utterance has the soloist play rather dramatically, but offstage, out of sight of the audience. You have this sense of distance built into the piece, which is a metaphor for one aspect of the horn's personality.”

Schwantner describes Beyond Autumn as a single-movement arch-like rondo design, approximately 16 minutes long. Serving as a musical fulcrum at its center is a chorale introduced first by flute and strings, then lower woodwinds, including all the horns—the only time in the piece that the horn section and soloist play the same music. The composer considers Beyond Autumn to be a very direct piece in terms of its musical expression. Listeners may notice the frequent use of a minor sixth, the primary interval that permeates much of the piece, and particularly the soloist's line. “Minor sixths have a very special quality when played by horn, rather mournful, at least to my ears,” declares Schwantner. He points out that the piece is unlike a traditional concerto in that it has no substantial section of fast, virtuosic music. Rather, it is virtuosic in the control it requires to master long, extended lines, often in the horn's high register.

In an “official” statement written to be included in the program notes for the performance, Joseph Schwantner wrote:

Beyond Autumn “Poem” for Horn and Orchestra was commissioned by the International Horn Society, and in part by the Barlow Endowment at Brigham Young University. Its premiere was awarded to Gregory Hustis, principal horn, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The horn, a most demanding and an unforgiving instrument to master, is capable of a remarkably wide range of music expression. At times, highly assertive, arresting and heroic, it also possesses a darkly evocative and distantly veiled nature that can blend intimately with the most delicate and transparent orchestral textures. This work engages those dramatic, lyrical and elegiac qualities that are a part of the horn's expansive expressive persona, and is further illuminated and informed by the eloquent musicianship of Gregory Hustis. Beyond Autumn is dedicated to the memory of my father-in-law, Jack Rossate, a kind and gentle man who blessed my family with his presence for ninety-six years.

For the premiere performances, the DSO's conductor, Andrew Litton, called the composer to the platform while the crew and orchestra made the stage ready and relocated themselves for the performance. Microphone in hand, Litton prefaced his brief interview with the composer by stating that so many times musicians wish they could ask the composer detailed questions about a work; having the composer present made this finally possible. He asked Schwantner how he came to write the concerto, whereupon the composer confessed that it was commissioned by the International Horn Society. Further, in preparation he listened to recordings of Gregory Hustis and was taken by Hustis' eloquent musicianship and lyrical ability. The piece was then fashioned to express what Schwantner believes to be both the idiomatic voice of the horn as well as the lyrical abilities of the soloist.

The audience, then, was prepared to expect a colorful, sixteen-minute orchestral fantasy featuring the horn, before an orchestra that included piccolo, woodwinds in pairs plus English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon, four horns (seated opposite the soloist), three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, three percussionists playing a myriad of instruments, amplified piano, harp, and strings.

The poem begins with a brief, brilliant flurry of sound from the percussion, keyboard and harp over a soft, sustained, dense chord in the strings and winds. This chord ebbs and flows dynamically under percussive interjections. The horn enters with a dramatic off-stage call, followed by another percussive flurry, then another solo horn call, higher in pitch this time, from a position on-stage but just visible to the audience. While the hornist moves to the solo position, the orchestra returns to colorful chords and string glissandi which, in turn, build to a climactic entry of the entire collection of low range instruments, plus amplified piano. As more instruments become involved, the horn solo calls out in triple subdivisions over the duple divisions of the orchestra. Here, perhaps due to the hall, which is somewhat “unfriendly” to the horn, Hustis had to play much louder than a perusal of the score would indicate. Greg remarked after the performance, “Without a piano reduction of the score, I have been flying blind for about ten weeks. It wasn't until yesterday morning that we all heard the orchestration for the first time. When I practiced at home, I thought I was cranking out the loud passages, then when we put it together, the listeners wanted more and more horn. Also, there was a problem in that the 8/4 passages, which I had practiced 3+3+2, as marked in the score, Mr. Litton decided to do in a four pattern. However, Litton was really good about preparing the piece—he listened very carefully to the comments of the many ears in the hall. I'm really relieved that the performance went well because I felt a great deal of pressure to do the work justice on behalf of the Horn Society. I almost became religious tonight—someone was watching over me on a few passages.” An orchestra colleague noted, “It came together very well just at the last minute.”

Rhythmic contrast is a hallmark of the piece and it is this rhythmic independence that creates a primary difficulty for the soloist, who bears the burden of fitting in more visually complicated triplet groupings over sometimes dense orchestral scoring in the winds and strings. While the solo horn part only demands dexterity in the two opening calls, the range is fairly wide (written e to c"'), featuring the interval of the minor sixth, as mentioned above. Sustained melodies are generally played full-voice, never high and delicate, and there are occasional brilliant high notes. Clearly the part calls for a soloist who is physically very powerful. While the outer portions of the arch-shaped composition are more dissonant, the core of the work is tonal and melodic. Particularly, two melodies stand out as beautiful: one is the quiet chorale at the center of the work which is taken up by the woodwinds and unison horns, including the soloist. The other melody, with sighing seconds and sixths that could have been penned by J. S. Bach, is heard in the horn on either side of the chorale. From this point, the composition revisits the themes from the first section, transformed in subtle to dramatic ways. An extended orchestral interlude, with the horns melodically doubling the strings, gradually dies away to a coda, titled “Recessional.” Over a quiet ostinato in the orchestra, the soloist repeats a soft mournful melody in the middle and lower range, while traveling toward the stage door between each statement. Here, the horn melody need not coincide with the ostinato which finally fades to silence. The ending strikes the listener with a poignant nostalgia, the feeling of something lost—something important but vague, undefinable, and elusive to conscious thought. Perhaps it is that same longing that we experience at times in certain movements of Mahler's symphonies. The listener, rather than offering a standing ovation, has a more compelling desire to immediately rehear Beyond Autumn, to somehow recapture its evocative spirit. It is a thoughtful piece destined to be programmed at the beginning or in the middle of an orchestra program.

As a horn player examining the score before the premiere, I was initially struck with the slightly “contrived” idea of beginning and ending with the horn off-stage, an effect we often encounter in horn recitals. However, we must remember that this spatial effect, experienced regularly in contemporary music venues throughout the world, is not a common feature to the general public attending an orchestra concert. Although there are a number of traditional orchestral works from the 19th and 20th centuries that incorporate visual and sonic spatial effects, there is, to my knowledge, only one “concerto” that includes offstage horn: Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. So what might appear on paper as possibly not the most original idea comes off well in the context of the orchestral venue (notwithstanding the review below).

Here is what the music critics said about the performance:

Those who have become accustomed to thinking of modern music as primarily acerbic should take in one of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's concerts this weekend. The DSO is premiering Joseph Schwantner's Beyond Autumn: Poem for Horn and Orchestra, and it's a powerful work that leaves a pleasant aftertaste.

Mr. Schwantner's work might be thought of as a horn concerto, except that it is decidedly different from the usual display piece for a solo instrument with orchestra. For one thing, it is somber—a mood not broken by several orchestral outbursts heavy with percussion and brass. There's no ostentatious technical display for the soloist. Instead, there's music of substance—and no doubt of formidable difficulty—that enhances the mood of the work and contributes to its overall unity. This isn't a concerto in which you'd expect a pause to allow the soloist to show his stuff with a cadenza.

Beyond Autumn is a work of contrasts: aggressive percussion offset by gentle violins, tartness near the beginning and end balanced by a lyrical middle episode for the strings alone. Finally the tension is resolved peacefully: there's a fadeaway ending that haunts the listener after the last notes. This is a work with a distinctive personality.

The remarkable Gregory Hustis, the DSO's principal horn player, gave a superb solo performance and the orchestra as a whole made an impressive statement under Andrew Litton's baton. Mr. Schwantner, who lives in Rochester, NY, was present to make some brief remarks before the performance and acknowledge the applause at the end.

—Olin Chisholm, Dallas Morning News.

 

Although the title reminds one of something the advertising industry might have dreamed up for a new cologne or shade of wall paint, the music itself is extraordinary. It begins noisily, with the horn offstage—like the piece's title, a useless but harmless gimmick—and quickly moves into 20 minutes of beautifully crafted lyricism, based not on long sweeping themes but on brief phrases handled skillfully and passionately. The myriad orchestral effects recall Stravinsky; the extroverted, shameless neo-romanticism brings to mind Schwantner's late colleague at the Eastman School, the once sneered-upon but now respected American symphonic genius Howard Hanson.

Kudos to conductor Litton for presenting this new work, and even greater kudos to soloist Hustis, the orchestra's principal horn player, for his masterful, sympathetically romantic reading of this new work. Here, the horn lived up to its potential as one of the orchestra's most soulful and heroic instruments.

—Wayne Lee Gay, Fort Worth Star Telegram.

* * * * * * *

Schwantner's biography is impressive. In addition to serving on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music, he is currently a visiting lecturer a Yale and has served on the faculty of Julliard. He was Composer-in-Residence with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra as part of the Meet the Composer/Orchestra Residencies Program funded by the Exxon Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has been the subject of a television documentary entitled, Soundings, produced by WGBH in Boston for national broadcast.

Schwantner's Aftertones of Infinity received the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Magabunda, “four poems of Agueda Pizarro,” recorded on Nonesuch Records by the Saint Louis Symphony, was nominated for a 1985 Grammy Award in the category, “Best New Classical Composition,” and his A Sudden Rainbow, also recorded by the Saint Louis Symphony on Nonesuch, received a 1987 Grammy nomination for “Best Classical Composition.” Music of Amber won first prize-Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards-1981, A Sudden Rainbow won third prize-Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards-1986. Among his works released on compact disc are Black Anemones, New Morning for the World, From Afar..., Aftertones of Infinity, Music of Amber, And The Mountains Rising Nowhere, and A Play of Shadows. He has won many grants and his music is published by Helicon Music Corporation, the CF Peters Corporation, and European-American Music.

Schwantner's music has been performed by a host of orchestras throughout the world, including several major music festivals, and commissions have come from the New York Philharmonic, Pacific-Northwest Ballet, the Barlow Endowment, First New York International Festival of the Arts, Boston Symphony, Saint Louis Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Fromm Music Foundation, Naumburg Foundation, Chamber Society of Lincoln Center, American Composers Concerts Inc., American Heritage Foundation, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Canton Symphony, Solisti New York Chamber Orchestra, and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.

Joseph Schwantner's music is particularly marked by unique and fascinating colors, a 20th-century lyricism, and dramatic rhythmic interest. Although he uses a vast array of instrumental colors, particularly in the percussion, his music has a dramatic intensity and substance that goes beyond mere formal gestures. In a radio interview with Professor Schwantner, broadcast in the Dallas area prior to the premiere, he confessed to seeking inspiration in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, the “composer's composer,” for their direct and unashamed lyricism and exquisite orchestration. His new percussion concerto has taken the orchestral world by storm, receiving multiple performances and international acclaim; in every sense of the word, it is a also great composition.

Likewise, Beyond Autumn, will undoubtedly find its place in the orchestral repertoire, perhaps as a haunting “slow movement” in Schwantner's cycle of concerti. Looking objectively at the history of musical composition, most musicians would agree that simply adequate composers are capable of writing acceptable fast pieces and movements. However, only artistic giants have had the skill and depth of expression to compose memorable slower-paced compositions or movements. We have one, it is entitled Beyond Autumn, and it is our legacy to the next generation of horn players!