Angelfire: “Fantasy” for Amplified Violin and Orchestra

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            Joseph Schwantner has been recognized as one of America’s important composers for many decades, now, and public accolades for his compositions have spanned over a half-century.  A native of Michigan, he won his first award for composition at the age of sixteen.  His first major work for orchestra, Aftertones of Infinity, garnered him a Pulitzer Prize in 1979, and other recognition includes a Kennedy Center Friedheim and Guggenheim awards, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Grammy nomination—to name just a few. Commissions have come from some of America’s most prestigious orchestras. His works have tended to focus on chamber music, orchestra (with and without soloist), and wind ensemble.  In addition to his busy career as a composer, he has long been active as an important teacher of talented young composers, having taught at, among others, the Eastman School of Music for almost three decades, the Juilliard School, and until recently at Yale University.  There are few composers as articulate, communicative and thoughtful as Schwantner, who is dedicated to bringing symphony audiences and contemporary music together in appreciation.   While, like so many other composers of his generation, he was educated in the severe, academic style of serialism and 12-tone music, he soon moved his artistic focus in other directions.  His mature music is clearly in the fold of those who are stimulated by atmospheres, poetic inspiration, and creation of specific moods—all in a texture that creates and manipulates color as a compositional element.   The physical world of objects with sound potential not usually considered is one of his imaginative earmarks:  fingers on the rims of wet wine glasses, bowed cymbals—the list goes on.   In this, we need to remember the deep and respected musical tradition of stunning new sounds that goes back to Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler and others—it all is one of the defining characteristics of twentieth-century music and beyond.  More specific and recent is the obvious connection between the musical style and æsthetic of Schwantner and the titan of a slightly earlier American generation, George Crumb.   Not only is the connection evident, but Schwantner is thoughtful and direct in expressing his admiration for Crumb’s approach to musical composition.   The music of both of these artists is evocative of specific emotive moods, sound worlds, and poetic imagery—all generated by percussive effects, ringing sonorities, and strong motivic consistency.  The evocative names of his compositions are evidence of all of this—they have little to do with such traditions as “symphony,” “sonata,” or “quartet.”  For those who prefer music that evokes imagery, within or without the physical world, he is your man.

            Angelfire (2001) is the third of a series of compositions begun in the late 1980s for solo instrument and orchestra, and was commissioned by the Howard Hanson Memorial Institute of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music.  It is a challenging work, both to perform and to apprehend. The “fantasy” is roughly in what is know as an “arch form” these days, with opening elements returning at the end, after central diversions.  It is a dense and powerful work, in which the violin needs amplification simply to compete with the stentorian orchestra. Throughout, Schwantner peppers the texture with his signature spiky little interjections from the mallet percussion. Beginning with one of the composer’s favorite gestures--low crashing, gong-like strokes in the orchestra--the solo violin enters with “incisive and declamatory” phrases that the orchestra gradually takes up and which serve as the main material. The solo part evolves through a series of moods that vary significantly—pausing from time to time to engage in cadenza-like passages.  A dark, lyrical passage is the first diversion, with long arching lines that rather remind one of what Mahler may have written had he lived to old age.  Later, we encounter a spooky “floating” evocation of Bartók’s “night music.” Finally, a more lightly scored section occurs that is carried along by scampering, continuous arpeggios in a steady rhythm.  At the end, the heavy gestures of the beginning come back, and this dark, imposing, and somewhat enigmatic musical edifice concludes with a brilliant coda.  It represents only one specific aspect of the musical style of one of America’s most admired composers, one whose musical vision eloquently demonstrates his commitment to further the infinite color resources of the nineteenth-century orchestra—a color palette that still serves immeasurable well.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan