The Kennedy Center

Morning's Embrace

About the Work

Joseph Schwantner Composer: Joseph Schwantner
© Richard Freed

Morning's Embrace, completed last November and receiving its world premiere performances in the present concerts, was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra in celebration of its seventy-fifth season, through a grant from Mr. and Mrs. Frank H. Pearl.

The score, dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. Pearl, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, medium and large bass drums, tenor drum, 2 conga drums, timbales, bongos, 4 tom-toms, 3 brake drums, large tam-tam, 3 suspended cymbals, 3 triangles, crotales, 3 cow bells, anvil, bell tree, tubular bells, tambourine, xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, amplified piano, amplified harp, and strings. Duration, 18 minutes.

The music of Joseph Schwantner has figured prominently in Leonard Slatkin's repertory since the late 1970s, when he began conducting it as music director of the Saint Louis Symphony and in his guest engagements with the National Symphony and other orchestras. Mr. Slatkin appointed Mr. Schwantner the first composer-in-residence to the Saint Louis orchestra, and both during his residency (1982-1985) and afterward commissioned, introduced and recorded several of his works. Naturally, Mr. Slatkin has continued his enthusiastic attention to this composer since becoming music director of the NSO: early in his tenure here he recorded still more Schwantner works, and in November 2001 Marin Alsop, another champion of this composer, conducted the orchestra in the premiere of Angelfire, a fantasy for violin and orchestra composed for Anne Akiko Meyers, who was the soloist on that occasion. In the meantime, in January 1995 Mr. Slatkin presided over the world premiere of Mr. Schwantner's Percussion Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, which had commissioned that work for its sesquicentennial. That work, subsequently recorded by Mr. Slatkin and the NSO, was dedicated to the memory of Stephen Albert, whose Symphony RiverRun had been commissioned by the NSO and introduced and recorded under Mr. Slatkin's predecessor here, Mstislav Rostropovich.

Still further strands of connection with Mr. Slatkin and the NSO are evident in the collection of four Schwantner works performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton on a recent Hyperion CD: Mr. Litton himself was an assistant conductor of the NSO early in the Rostropovich years, and one of the works on this disc is the aforementioned Angelfire, with Anne Akiko Meyers, who introduced it here. Another is A Sudden Rainbow, which Mr. Slatkin commissioned and recorded in Saint Louis and subsequently introduced into the NSO's repertory. The two remaining works were Dallas Symphony commissions for two of that orchestra's principal players: Beyond Autumn, a fantasy for horn and orchestra, with Gregory Hustis, and September Canticle, for organ and orchestra, with James Díaz.

Despite his busy creative activity and a steadily increasing load of commissions, Mr. Schwantner remained active as a teacher for many years. He was on the faculty of the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music for thirty years, and in 1999 moved on to an appointment as professor of composition at Yale University. Three years later, however, he left the academic world: he and his wife relocated in the bucolic village of Spofford, New Hampshire, where he contentedly devotes himself full-time to composing. The new setting had a good deal to do with determining the character of Morning's Embrace, as he explains in the note he has kindly provided.

Morning's Embrace draws much of its spirit and energy from the intensely vibrant early morning sunrises I experience living in rural New Hampshire. I found the powerful kaleidoscope of hue and color piercing the morning mist and trees to provide potent imagery for my musical imagination.

The work is cast in a single continuous movement and, like my earlier orchestral work A Sudden Rainbow (1986), takes its inspiration from Nature. In some respects, in fact, these two works share similar characteristics and may be viewed as companion pieces. Each employs an expanded ensemble that includes a wide variety of pitched and non-pitched percussion instruments along with amplified piano and harp.

Morning's Embrace opens with an intense and darkly resonant orchestral pedal point initiated by muted piano, harp, tam-tam, double basses, cellos (pizzicati) and bass clarinet. This low, sustained drone forms one of the harmonic elements used consistently throughout the score; here it is followed immediately by a rapidly arpeggiated six-note sonority presented forcefully by pitched percussion, piano and harp. As in many of my works, these sharply etched and immediately contrasting ideas presented at the outset recur frequently in continually new and sonically varied timbral environments.