Lyricism Layered In ‘Words Of Love’ By Samuel Adams

Composer Samuel Adams takes a bow with the Chicago Symphony after the world premiere of ‘many words of love.’
(Photos by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Chicago Symphony Orchestra)
By Nancy Malitz

CHICAGO — For the second consecutive week in its early spring season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has given the world premiere of a big, essentially lyrical work that pushes the threshold of virtuosity. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto was an unabashed challenge of human speed and endurance that was thrilling to watch even as it must have sent Yo-Yo Ma straight to the Epsom salts after every performance.

Samuel Adams in the second year of his residency with the Chicago Symphony.

Samuel Adams’ many words of love, which was performed March 16-21 under CSO music director Riccardo Muti, is virtuosic for the orchestra’s musicians in various delicate ways involving fluttering microtonal intervals, pitchless air sounds, attenuated harmonics, unusual bowing techniques, and minutely precise timbral shifts. These myriad busy, individual gestures are in the service of an overall expressive texture that aims big and moves with slow might. Muti and the orchestra will travel with Adams’ ambitious 20-minute work on a tour of the Eastern seaboard in 2018, when it will receive Kennedy Center (Feb. 7) and Carnegie Hall (Feb. 10) debuts.

Percussionist Cynthia Yeh activates electronic resonances via a wired snare drum.

For this listener, the experience of many words of love was not unlike focusing on the prolonged rustle of tree leaves or the scraping of insect wings while becoming gradually but increasingly aware of a brooding and formidable surrounding forest. Electronic effects are hushed and minimal but important, best described as enhanced resonances that are activated by a percussionist stroking a snare drum wired for sound. As in Adams’ Drift and Providence, which the young professionals of the Chicago Civic Orchestra performed in December 2016, an imaginative arc suggests the earth breathing or, perhaps, sighing.

Adams and fellow composer in residence Elizabeth Ogonek host a MusicNOW event.

Adams is one of two Mead composers-in-residence along with Elizabeth Ogonek. They were chosen by Muti to carry on the work of curating the orchestra’s MusicNOW series while participating in the life of the orchestra, as did their immediate predecessors, Mason Bates  and Anna Clyne. Muti has taken meticulous care of the preparation and performance of all of these composers’ new works to date, and he has toured with the repertoire.

The title of Adams’ work refers to a snippet from “Der Lindenbaum,” the fifth song in Schubert’s Winterreise to verses of Wilhelm Müller. In it a young man is haunted by memory as he passes by a linden tree into which he had once carved many words of love (“Ich schnitt in seine Rinde / so manches liebe Wort”), although he refuses even to look.

Jacket with Carl Stone’s 1986 ‘Shing Kee,’ which influenced Adams.

The particular phrase and melody were used with hypnotic eloquence by the American composer Carl Stone in a pioneering 1986 work of digital sampling called Shing Kee, which Adams said he has loved since discovering it a decade ago. Shing Kee repeatedly manipulates and transforms the snippet, as sung by the great Japanese pop and jazz singer Akiko Yano. In the iconic recording, microscopic bits gradually lengthen and become recognizable as Schubert (at around the 8-minute mark) before slowing to an indistinguishable fade.

The startling lamentation that forms the middle third of Adams’ opus does seem freely sparked by these vivid Winterreise materials. The poem also prompted a more contemporary gestural direction from Adams related to the physical act of carving words into a tree – once a romantic custom, perhaps, but now more likely perceived as an act of violence against nature. This left Adams with some interesting ideas to play with: The piece opens with a sforzato shriek, and it pulses with a shimmering array of uneasy life sounds.

Adams’ mother, Deborah O’Grady, is a landscape photographer who recently created a visual symphony to accompany performances of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles, which celebrates landscapes of southwestern Utah. Adams cited her as an “incredible influence on my work, not just aesthetically but also in terms of subject matter. It is rare to find a photo of hers that is purely postcard-esque. You always see the edge of humanity creeping in.”

CSO music director Riccardo Muti, congratulating  Adams, will take the work on tour.

Muti tapped the music’s subtle, variable moods, eliciting a clear dramatic line with disarming ease. The performance was entirely convincing, the Adams solid in the company of Rossini’s overture to La scala di seta, a tower of witty precision, and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, which the orchestra had not performed since 2003, although it sounded vigorously fresh. Mitsuko Uchida and Muti probably did not need to speak about Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, so often have they enacted its poetry together.

Another group of upcoming premieres for Adams are Schubert-related. Music Accord has commissioned a series of Adams impromptus to be played alone or interspersed between Schubert’s four Impromptus, D. 935. Pianist Emanuel Ax will work them into a series of recitals in April and May that include Carnegie Hall and tour dates in Philadelphia; Portland, Maine; Rochester, N.Y.; and Evanston, Ill.

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.