We’ve all seen it: the new composition that is commissioned with great expectations, premiered with great fanfare, reviewed with great discernment—and then vanishes, seldom to be heard again. But over eighteen months between 2008 and 2010, one work—Joseph Schwantner’s Chasing Light…—was given more than 70 performances. The multiple hearings weren’t a lucky fluke; they were a part of the game plan from the get-go. Schwantner’s score was the second work in the Ford Made in America program, the continent-spanning orchestral commissioning consortium. Ford Made in America particularly focuses on smaller ensembles by offering them the opportunity band together to commission and premiere a new work by an established American composer, thus bringing music by a living composer to audiences nationwide.
Schwantner’s Chasing Light… was given its world premiere on September 20, 2008 by the Reno Chamber Orchestra, one of 58 orchestras in all 50 states to perform it during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. Next week, the estimable Naxos label will release a recording of Chasing Light…, along with Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (1994) and Morning’s Embrace (2005). The recording features the Nashville Symphony led by Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero, with the New York Philharmonic’s Christopher S. Lamb as soloist in the percussion concerto. Since this album was recorded while the Nashville Symphony was displaced by the recent flood, the recording sessions took place at the famous Studio A on the city’s Music Row; it’s the complimentary space to Nashville’s legendary Studio B. Nashville-based singer-songwriter Ben Folds, who records in Studio A, made it available to the Nashville Symphony for the recording. The orchestra scored a coup a couple of years ago with its recording of the first Ford Made in America commission, Joan Tower’s Made in America, which picked up Grammy Awards for Best Classical Composition, Best Classical Album, and Best Orchestral Performance.
The Ford Made in America commissioning project is jointly administered by the League of American Orchestras and Meet The Composer. The program is made possible by Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company. Major support for the program is also provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional funding from The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, and The Amphion Foundation.
We caught up with Joseph Schwantner just as the new recording was about to be released—and as he was working on a new piece to be premiered in the coming season.
Robert Sandla: This new recording gathers works that range from 1994 to 2008. Do you sense any commonality or shared aesthetic among them? Do you feel that your work has changed or developed over the years?
Joseph Schwantner: All three works, spanning more than a decade, form a kind of biographical snapshot that expresses my musical concerns at the time they were written. While drawing from the experience of my earlier music, I hope each new work possesses its own individual character united by the thread of a clear common voice. The body of work forms a larger tapestry of living an artistic life that embraces a continually evolving world of musical and poetic ideas and sounds. I’ve long had the notion that when the work is complete, you set it free to have its own life.
Sandla: Your inspiration often comes from nature. How does a composer translate the sights and sounds of the natural world into the medium of music?
Schwantner: I make no attempt at any literal interpretation of nature in my work; it’s more a matter of personal responses and emotions within me that seem to give rise to a rush of nascent musical ideas.
Sandla: You have said that Chasing Light… relates to your original poem of the same title. Does a listener need to know the text or the movement titles for Chasing Light… in order to enjoy the music fully?
Schwantner: I make little distinction between my music and the intersection of those poetic images that seem to continually inhabit my work. They all form a larger intertwined tapestry of living a meaningful artistic life with music, poetry, and sounds. Generally, music stands on its own without the necessity of external reference, just as listeners will ultimately bring their own informed life experience to the table when engaging any music.
Sandla: Chasing Light… was commissioned for the Ford Made in America program and performed by a big number of orchestras nationwide. Did you take any of that into consideration when writing the work, or did you proceed as usual?
Schwantner: Before beginning to compose Chasing Light…, I heard performances by the Reno Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble that premiered the work, so their sound was “in my ear.” The orchestra’s clear, finely detailed performances helped to furnish an important sonic backdrop while writing, though I knew it would be performed by many other orchestras, both large and small. In the end, I wrote the piece that I wanted to write.
Sandla: How did it feel to hear the work performed by such a large number of orchestras in a relatively condensed period of time? Did you travel to hear different performances of the score?
Schwantner: It was an exhilarating two-year period of travel throughout the U.S.—north, south, east, midwest, and west—in residence with some thirteen orchestras from the Reno Chamber Orchestra (Nevada) to Nashua Symphony Orchestra (New Hampshire), Las Cruces Symphony Orchestra (New Mexico), Evanston Symphony Orchestra (Illinois), Plymouth Symphony Orchestra (Michigan), and the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra (Alabama), among others.
Sandla: Do you have any particular hopes for this recording?
Schwantner: My hope is that this CD provides additional, ample evidence of the extraordinary industry and efforts of Maestro Guerrero and the members of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra to produce world-class performances in recording. I could not have wished for a more convincing engagement of my music by any orchestra. Also, the opportunity to have percussionist Christopher Lamb record the Percussion Concerto, a work written for him, was amazing. He simply “owns” the piece with a dynamic and compelling performance that is breathtaking! I’m also indebted to the League of American Orchestras, Meet The Composer, Ford Motor Company Fund, and the other arts organizations whose support and assistance made this recording possible.
To purchase the new Naxos recording—either as CD or digital download—at a 35 percent discount, click here and enter promocode LAO1 at checkout. (Offer expires December 31, 2011.)
To read Symphony magazine’s 2008 interview with Joseph Schwantner, which appeared concurrent with the launch of the project, click here.