Symphony Season Opens with Jonesí Canyon Symphony, Born in the Subconscious
by Greg Waxberg
A Mississippi native is coming home, again. On September 17, to open the
Mississippi Symphony Orchestraís first "Bravo" concert of the 2005-2006
season at Thalia Mara Hall, Music Director Crafton Beck will conduct Samuel
Jonesí Symphony No. 3, "Palo Duro Canyon", named for the canyon in Texas.
This is the first time the Mississippi Symphony is playing a piece by Jones,
although members of the orchestra have played his music in concerts arranged
by Millsaps College. For the past five years, since Beck became music
director, he has wanted to program one of Jonesí works, and now the timing is
right, especially because Jones celebrated his 70th birthday on June 2.
"When I heard this piece two years ago, I said 'this is the piece thatís got
to be done in Mississippi,í because itís one of his symphonies, first of
all. Itís so dramatic, itís eminently accessible and it presents its subject
matter in such broad strokes that I knew that our audience would enjoy it",
Beck says, during a conversation at the studios of Mississippi Public
Broadcasting in late July. When asked for his general impression of the
symphony, he responds with four words: "the panorama of it". He emphasizes
the vibrancy, spaciousness, pictorial aspects and huge tableaus of open
sounds. "Itís the perfect thing for an American composer to do".
This also marks the first time that the Mississippi Symphony will play
contemporary American music under Beckís baton. "The language is different",
he explains. "The technical demands of an orchestra in the contemporary
symphonic world are different from what was going on 100 years ago".
Jones, who was born in Inverness, is constantly writing new music. He lives
in Seattle, where he is Composer-in-Residence of the Seattle Symphony. He has
received numerous awards, including three Music Awards from the Mississippi
Institute for Arts and Letters. He was the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate
from Millsaps in 2000 and, in the same year, was inducted into the Mississippi
Musicians Hall of Fame. And he certainly has been no stranger to his home
state during the last few years.
In March of 2002, the Mississippi Boychoir and University of Southern
Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jay Dean, presented the premiere
of "Eudoraís Fable: The Shoe Bird". For the 2003-2004 season, Jones enjoyed
a residency with the Meridian Symphony Orchestra, when Claire Fox Hillard
conducted three more of his compositions: "Roundings: Musings and Meditations
on Texas New Deal Murals", the "Chorale-Overture for Organ and Orchestra",
and the oratorio "The Temptation of Jesus".
This time, the focus is specifically on nature. The Palo Duro Canyon (Spanish
for "hard wood") is approximately 20 miles south of Amarillo and the subject
of a rather unusual commission that Jones received from the Amarillo Symphony.
Usually, he explains, a commission coincides with a special occasion (as was
the case with his Chorale-Overture), but the Amarillo Symphony wanted this
piece to be about the canyon.
"They wanted it to commemorate, and to speak to, the special relationship
that all the people in Amarillo - and the surrounding area of the panhandle
of Texas - feel toward this really marvelous natural phenomenon", Jones says,
speaking by phone from Seattle in mid-July. "My first reaction, of course,
was 'wait a minute. Thereís already a piece written for a canyon.í" Heís
referring to Ferde Grofeís "Grand Canyon Suite", and the Palo Duro Canyon
is called "The Grand Canyon of Texas".
"And whatís really rather enduring about it, for me, [is that] Texans are
noted the world over for bragging about having the largest of everything.
This canyon is by no means the largest", he says, chuckling. "Itís actually,
as major canyons go, rather smallish".
The composer has noted in previous discussions of his Third Symphony that,
in contrast to the pictorially-descriptive aspects of Grofeís piece, he aims
more for capturing the feelings that the Palo Duro Canyon evokes, particularly
the drama of seeing it for the first time. Jones comments that many people
consider the surrounding area flat, but he doesnít quite see it that way.
Itís treeless, and the landscape creates the effect of being featureless.
"The landscape is very, very gently rolling. If you grew up in the Mississippi
Delta, you know what flat is, as I did". The point of greatest impact,
literally and figuratively, comes a little later. "You can hardly believe the
earth opening up before you like that. I wanted to re-capture that feeling in
the very beginning of my symphony".
Jones, by the way, was already in the spotlight when he witnessed all of this.
A camera crew from a public television station in Amarillo tagged along to
capture his impressions, part of a documentary about the evolution, rehearsal
and performance of the symphony. "Not only was I doing what any normal tourist
would do, seeing the canyon for the first time and being overwhelmed by that,
I was, secondly, being overwhelmed by the knowledge that 'oh, my gosh, I have
to write a piece of music about this.í And, thirdly, I was aware of the fact
that there was a camera in the car and following me around".
Then, the situation became interesting. Jones struggled with how to convert
his visual stimulation and awe to the medium of music. That evening, in his
hotel room, he could not figure out how to portray the canyonís walls, because
two sets of identical notes played on the same upward scale would not create
the image of two separate walls. When he awoke the next morning, the theme was
in his head. What had his subconscious realized? Tilt the image of the canyon
from a "v" to a "<". This establishes a musical mirror, with one set of notes
ascending for one wall, and the second set of notes descending for the second
wall, allowing both sides of the canyon to be depicted simultaneously.
Jones says the same situation has happened with other projects. "When I wake
up, my subconscious has dutifully done its work!"
Among other ideas, the symphony is intended to convey the vastness and beauty
of the canyon, the canyon as a metaphor for earth, the struggle between the
Native Americans and white settlers - utilizing two themes of the Comanche
Indians, for whom the canyon was sacred - and the feeling of timelessness when
man contemplates the stars. The first sound we hear is not music, but
electronically-generated wind. Jones also invented a "bundle of sticks" to
function as primitive-sounding percussion in the music depicting the Native
Americans. The other percussion instruments include the snare drum, gong,
xylophone, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum and bells. Except for the bells,
which are heard later, almost all of this percussion is used together toward
the beginning of the symphony.
"You get the feeling of scurrying, mammalian life," Jones says, referring to
the sporadic notes in the strings that complement the wind. This is the
"plains" theme and returns several times in the woodwinds and brass,
particularly to establish that struggle between the Indians and white men.
These sporadic notes become stronger, accompanied by the snare drum. "And
then, all of a sudden," he continues, "the woodwinds and percussion come in
with a mighty swoop and it opens up all the way down to the very depths of
the orchestra." It is at this point that we are in the canyon and the
subconsciously-born theme is played by the brass.
Of this theme, Beck says, "Itís just magnificent, and it is magnificence."
The brass and timpani are emphasized throughout the symphony, and there are
beautifully soaring moments for the strings, as Jones evokes the majesty of
the canyon, with its grandeur and colors. During the final minutes, the
xylophone and celesta symbolize feelings of floating, timelessness and
meditation as the piece fades to silence.
With this being his first occasion to conduct music by a contemporary
American composer with this audience, Beck says the most important outcome
for him is that listeners will be open to hearing more music by Jones, and,
overall, more music by a living American composer. "I hope that, by choosing
this piece, and by the fact that Sam will be there, that the piece, on one
hearing, will make a clear impression. When itís live, and with Sam there,
thereís going to be an intensity about the performance."
Speaking of intensity, as part of his preparation for this symphony, Jones
traveled to the canyon at various times of the year. Following his first visit
in late summer, he returned in December and walked to the amphitheater, where
the premiere would take place in May of 1992. The canyon wall is behind this
stage area, a splendid backdrop. Jones climbed the wall, maybe half or
two-thirds the way, playing the canyon music to himself.
"I absolutely knew it was right. I was saving that as a kind of a test to see
if that theme seems to resonate in the circumstances of the canyon itself,
not just in my head in the hotel room. It seems to answer back, very
affirmatively, 'yes, this is it.í"
Greg Waxberg is Music Director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting Radio. He
writes program notes for the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and Mississippi
Opera, and his essay about Maestro James Levine was published on FanFaire.com.