Last night I attended the premiere of Samuel Jones' Tuba Concerto at a
Seattle Symphony concert. Mr. Jones' conservative, tonal idiom can be
melodious, but in this piece he chose conflict and dramatic utterance
instead. For my money---and more of my money than expected, since they
ran out of cut-price Senior tickets by the time we got to the ticket
counter---he did not succeed.
The slow movement began with a chorale that might have been haunting,
but it was constantly interrupted by snarling brass interjections.
Symbolic of something, I guess, but musically incoherent. The last
movement was full of hurtling up-and-down scale figures, something like
19th century "storm" music. What for? The program notes mention something
about the Boeing wind tunnel, at which the Concerto's dedicatee had
worked. Perhaps images of the Boeing test facility should have been
projected on a screen above the orchestra, to advise the audience of the
programmatic sense of all the passages which made little or no musical
Mr. Jones' Concerto suffered from unavoidable comparison with the next
piece on the program, Tchaikowsky's Sixth Symphony. Each movement there
makes perfect sense. I am always enchanted by the slightly off-balance
ballroom grace of the 2nd movement pseudo-waltz in 5/4 time. After the
perky 3rd movement marched to its rousing conclusion, several audience
members (including, unfortunately, my companion) burst into premature
applause, unaware of what was to come. Then Gerald Schwartz and the
Seattle Symphony made the inconsolable grief of the last movement as
powerful as any performance I have heard. When it ended, the audience
remained dead silent for a minute or two, as usual.
The comparison of the two works made me realize how much guts it takes
for a contemporary composer to write a "heavy" new composition. Its
performance will unavoidably demand comparison with masterworks. Some
composers try to avoid this challenge by just avoiding strong emotion,
like <i>Les Six</i> in 1920s Paris, who concentrated on detachment,
irony, and high-jinks. Other composers avoid the challenge by leaving
conflict out of their music and concentrating instead on gracefulness.
When this approach works, as in the pastoralism of, say, Eric Ewazen
among contemporaries, the results can be beautiful. When it doesn't
work, the result is just another one of those umpteen boring compositions
that we never hear a second time.
When modern composers dare to try to plumb emotional depths, it strikes
me that the few who succeed--like Benjamin Lees or Christopher Rouse--merit
double credit: one for the moxie to try, and even more, of course, for
succeeding. So, although I don't think Samuel Jones succeeded in what
he meant to do with the Tuba Concerto, I salute him for his moxie.
Department of Gnome Sciences
University of Washington