Heartfelt Dialogue: Chance Meeting Led To ‘Unchained’

A chance encounter two decades ago inspired James Matheson to compose ‘Unchained,’ given its world premiere by
the Los Angeles Philharmonic under James Gaffigan. (Jamie Arrigo)
By Jim Farber

LOS ANGELES – It’s not uncommon for a composer to be asked about the inspiration for a work. But the story James Matheson related before the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Feb. 24 world premiere of his 12-minute Unchained was unique, to say the least.

Matheson told moderator Daniel Kessner that 21 years ago, while studying music under Steven Stucky at Cornell University, he went through “a particularly bad period.” Totally by chance, he said, he met a man on the street. “He bummed a cigarette from me. We started talking and went to have a drink.”

For the next two weeks, Matheson said, the depth of their (non-sexual) friendship deepened, even though they had hardly anything in common. “I was this privileged white kid and he was this streetwise black guy, streetwise for Ithaca,” he added. “It ended with me pressing charges.” Those charges were not what sent the man to prison for many years, but Matheson felt badly about the situation. “Recently I contacted him. We worked it out and have become friends again. He’s being released from a state mental health facility Monday.”

The Chicago Symphony recorded Matheson’s Violin Concerto.

Unchained, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is based on that experience. “It also made me think about the history of slavery and mass incarceration in this country.”

Wow! That’s a lot to cram into a 12-minute composition! Whether Unchained succeeds as a reflection on slavery and mass incarceration is questionable, but what Matheson has done is create a work for full orchestra (including steel drum) that is fascinating and heartfelt. It conveys a sense of deep emotional connection that I do not feel in works like his well-crafted, eclectically sourced Violin Concerto, recently recorded by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony (on Yarlung Records).

Unchained, as John Henken observes in his program notes, “begins with a wallop.” An explosive burst of strings and horns sets the scene. But as the work evolves, an orchestral dialogue emerges between two conflicting, commenting, and intersecting voices.

What might be called “the voice of freedom and personal liberation” is symbolized by the fluttering of flutes that hover, sky blue, above the orchestra. The somber, shadowy realm of slavery and incarceration is told in dark brooding growls and rumbles in the low strings, accentuated by a series of snap pizzicato whiplashes from the double basses.

James Matheson at Disney Concert Hall. (Jamie Arrigo)

Matheson accentuates this orchestral dialogue with the pure metallic tones of the steel drum. The instrument comes to represent both the horrors of slavery that dominated the islands of the Caribbean (where it was invented) and the indomitable will of a people to survive.

Unchained is a moving composition that combines orchestral craft with deeply-felt emotion. It is also a piece that leaves you wanting more. We can only hope that Matheson’s richly textured musical exploration of this subject is not over. The story would make a great film script.

Commonly a piece of 12 minutes will open a program and be followed by a concerto. But as conducted by James Gaffigan (chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony), the LA Philharmonic program devoted the entire first half to a knock-down-drag-out performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, featuring (in the black gown) Hélène Grimaud.

Through four well-fought movements, soloist and orchestra battled bravely, landing blow after well-aimed blow, with Grimaud demonstrating a particularly powerful left jab. In the end, I awarded the bout to Grimaud in a technical knockout.

The concert ended with the Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloé, a work with a long and treasured history in LA. It was a favorite of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s and Carlo Maria Giulini’s. There was also a memorable visiting performance by Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony more years ago than I care to remember.

The Friday morning rendition by Gaffigan, however, did not compare well. Rushed tempos and a level of gush similar to that he’d displayed in the Brahms overwhelmed Ravel’s scintillating combination of luster, transparency, and dynamic energy.

I came away remembering and contemplating Matheson’s 12 minutes.

Jim Farber has been a fine arts feature writer and music critic in Los Angeles since 1982.