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ClassicsOnline Home » JONES, S.: Symphony No. 3, "Palo Duro Canyon" / Tuba Concerto (Olka, Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
“Samuel Jones is a sensitive musician with great imagination, and he is a real craftsman. These works should be part of the core of the great American repertoire” (Gerard Schwarz). Of his Symphony No. 3, Jones writes: “I wanted to capture in music that magical moment which everyone experiences when they first see the flat, treeless high plains fall dizzyingly away into the colorful vastness of the Palo Duro Canyon itself.” His Tuba Concerto, which Schwarz regards as “the finest solo work for that instrument ever produced”, was composed for the performers on this disc to showcase the instrument’s amazing range, agility and versatility and to spotlight Christopher Olka’s great artistry.
By Steve Schwartz
By Zach Carstensen
The Gathering Note
By Barton Cummings
By David Denton
Samuel Jones (b. 1935)
Tuba Concerto • Symphony No. 3 ‘Palo Duro Canyon’
In a distinguished career spanning more than five decades, Samuel Jones has enriched American musical life as a composer, conductor, and educator. His works encompass orchestral, choral, operatic and chamber repertoire, and have been widely performed by leading American orchestras and soloists.
Jones grew up in Indianola and Jackson, Mississippi, and graduated with highest honors from Millsaps College before earning Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in music composition at the Eastman School of Music, where he studied under Howard Hanson. In 1973 he was chosen to establish the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, serving as its founding dean for six years and also as professor of composition and conducting until 1997. Other posts have included conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic in New York and the Saginaw Symphony in Michigan. He has guest conducted extensively and is a frequent master teacher at conducting workshops throughout the United States. He has been Composer in Residence with Seattle Symphony since 1997.
Among the works Jones has composed for Seattle Symphony are Janus (for the opening of Benaroya Hall) and Chorale-Overture for Organ and Orchestra (for the Orchestra’s 100th anniversary) as well as the Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra (première in 2006) and the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra (première in 2008.)
Inspired by the visionary work of a world-renowned aeronautical engineer, Samuel Jones’ Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra was given its première in 2006 by soloist Christopher Olka with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. The concerto is the result of a commission from the Seattle Symphony with a grant from Sandra Crowder in memory of her late husband, James P. Crowder. Crowder was an aeronautical engineer for The Boeing Company, esteemed for his work in flow visualization, i.e., making it possible to see the motion of air as it flows over solid surfaces at high speed. Crowder’s work with wind tunnels is reflected in the final movement of the work. Additionally, Crowder was an avid patron of the symphony and the opera, and an enthusiastic amateur tuba player.
On the genesis of this concerto for an uncommon solo instrument, the composer has written: “The tuba has amazing range, agility, and versatility, and in the hands of a master performer it can command the stage on an equal footing with any instrument. I wanted to write a piece that would exhibit all this to the fullest extent, and that would spotlight [Seattle Symphony Principal Tubist] Chris Olka’s great artistry at the same time as it made an apt memorial to Jim Crowder’s life and work.” Jones, whose instrument is piano, nevertheless had an insider’s knowledge of brass instrumental performance, having played the euphonium in high school and college.
The opening movement, Andante con moto, presents an ascending tuba theme pitted against a swaying two-chord accompanying figure. One hears a fierceness redolent of Mars from Holst’s The Planets, creating a sense of relentless motion and inexorability. A secondary theme, which incorporates a hymn from Jones’ Chorale-Overture for Organ and Orchestra (composed for the opening of Seattle Symphony’s centennial season in 2003), provides potent contrast. Marked Andante mosso—Adagietto, the second movement begins with a high sustained note in the violins, which is immediately followed and accompanied by a two-chord figure on the harp. Its 6/8 time signature imparts the classic rocking sensation of a barcarolle. The rocking figure recalls the two chords of the opening movement but without the angst found there. The prevailing serenity is shattered by an angular, strident and painful intrusion from the brass that evokes the impact of being confronted with tragic news. Near the movement’s end the tuba player has a solo that contains a brief alternation of major and minor thirds, suggesting both joy and pain, inherent ingredients of life itself. The concluding Largo—Allegro molto drew its specific inspiration from Crowder’s work with wind tunnels. As the composer has written: “One can clearly hear [the great propeller’s] acceleration as it groans toward its predetermined speed. Once there, the tuba enters with a perpetuum mobile, illustrating musically the same swirls of air along a wing’s surface that Jim Crowder illustrated visually in his work. But there are some turbulences that need to be smoothed, so we hear the wind tunnel decelerate, and the aeronautical engineer returns to the basement workshop in his home and listens to his favorite music—Wagner’s Ring—while he mulls over ways to improve the smoothness of the flow, forging new tools, like Siegfried, in the process.”
Jones’ Symphony No. 3 resulted from a commission by the Amarillo Symphony, which requested a piece that would be based on the famous Palo Duro Canyon, an impressive natural wonder that lies some twenty miles south of Amarillo in the otherwise flat and arid panhandle of Texas. The work’s première on 1 May, 1992, took place, in fact, at the outdoor Amphitheater of Palo Duro Canyon State Park; music director James Setapen conducted the Amarillo Symphony. A television program featuring the Third Symphony has subsequently been broadcast over more than 150 public television stations in the United States.
Regarding the composition of this symphony the composer has written: “I wanted the piece to have many different layers—of sound and of meaning. I wanted it to conjure up an intuitive awareness of the long movements of time required for the creation of a canyon. I also wanted in some way to pay homage to Native Americans, to whom this canyon was a sacred place. And I wanted to capture in music that magical moment which everyone experiences when they first see the flat, treeless High Plains fall dizzyingly away into the colorful vastness of the Palo Duro Canyon itself.”
The symphony is cast as one movement, though its sequence of four clearly defined sections reflects classic sonata principles. The work opens with a depiction of the ceaseless wind over the seemingly endless plains that surround the deep chasm. A prepared tape of blowing wind provides literal evocation of the plains as well as a kind of obbligato to the traditional orchestral sonorities. Eventually, swooping winds and strings evoke the wonder of the earth dropping away as the listener descends into the unexpected and stunning canyon. As the instruments reach further into their nether sonic regions so, too, are we taken on a journey into the earth. An extended episode describes and evokes the timeless sequence of geological eras etched into the canyon’s walls.
The plaintive tones of an English horn solo open the strikingly lyrical second section, interrupted at times by darker references to earlier themes. The music in these interruptions attains an atmosphere of pregnant mystery, expressed, as the composer notes, by a “deep-voiced chorale to remind us that despite the beguiling natural beauty of the canyon the forces of nature are ignored at our peril.”
Embracing the twin functions of a development (in a traditional sonata movement) and an independent scherzo, the third section begins with the earlier plains theme stated by muted brasses, then appearing as a fugato in the strings before a dramatic halt stops the proceedings abruptly. Paralleling the Trio section of a traditional scherzo, the violins lead to a subsection based on authentic Comanche Indian themes, themselves interrupted by a variant on the plains theme that marks the arrival of white settlers in the pristine landscape. The two themes battle, as it were, and finally resolve into a kind of détente. The composer adds: “Almost immediately, however, they are both cast aside by the canyon theme, as if to remind us that human affairs come and go but the canyon (as a metaphor for the earth) preceded us and will endure long after us.”
A recapitulation ushers in the last section, which ends on a single F-sharp major chord. The coda, and truly the entire work, posits a number of existential questions. Again, as the composer has written, “The music can be felt as a journey from ancient prehistory through the relatively recent period of human habitation of the earth on toward the distant future… . In composing the coda…I was haunted by the feeling we all have had when we lie on our backs and contemplate the stars and through them the universe itself and the ancient mysteries: What does it all mean? What is our role in it? What lasts?
The symphony has divided its tonal universe into three equal parts. Music centered on D (which signifies the earth) and that centered on B flat (which signifies human life) now alternates with that centered on F sharp (which signifies the creative spirit of the universe). In the end, it is the F sharp which remains, floating, seemingly forever, over all.”
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JONES, S.: Symphony No. 3, "Palo Duro Canyon" / Tu...