For Adam Schoenberg, composing has a spontaneous bounce
July 18, 2013
Adam Schoenberg was a good enough pianist in his youth to be offered a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But Schoenberg, a native of western Massachusetts, turned it down, seeing that a scholarship would confine him to classical music.
"In piano studying, I always improvised," the 32-year-old said on a visit to Aspen this spring. "I didn't have structure, I didn't have focus, and I didn't understand what it took in discipline and time. It was just a release for me, a way of communicating."
Schoenberg instead went to Oberlin College, where he flirted with piano but for the most part led an ordinary college life, his time dominated by playing soccer. In his sophomore year, Schoenberg took the advice of his father, Steven, a jazz-fusion pianist and composer, and entered Timara, the school's electronic-music department. At the same time, he signed up for a composition class that was limited to composition majors; it was only through a computer glitch that he slipped into the course. The professor asked to see Schoenberg's music, and when Schoenberg said he didn't have any, he went into improvisation mode. Within six weeks, he had composed a solo flute piece that earned him a legitimate place in the class. Schoenberg left Timara to focus on composition, and he eventually earned master's and doctorate degrees in composition from Juilliard.
Schoenberg spent a few summers in the early 2000s in Aspen, and around 2006, the Aspen Music Festival gave him his first professional commission, a piece he wrote for the American Brass Quintet. In 2007, conductor Michael Stern arranged for Schoenberg's first orchestral piece, "Finding Rothko," which was premiered by the IRIS Orchestra in Tennessee.
But for his true career break, Schoenberg took the path of spontaneity. Early in 2009, visiting Miami, Schoenberg happened upon a group of musicians from the New World Symphony taking a break outside a concert hall. Among them was the conductor, Robert Spano. Schoenberg introduced himself, got his music into the conductor's hands and was quickly offered a commission by Spano, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
"For me, that was insane. That just doesn't happen — a conductor you just meet contacts you, gives you a commission?" Schoenberg said. "I told my teachers, and they said, 'Nope, that doesn't happen.' But Spano is loyal and spontaneous, and he liked my music and wanted to help me."
Spano, who since hasbecome music director in Aspen, confirmed that loyalty by programming "Finding Rothko" in Aspen in 2011 and giving Schoenberg a second commission for Atlanta. The relationship goes a step further with another commission. "Bounce," co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has its world premiere tonight, when Spano conducts the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra. Also on the program are works by Wagner and Strauss and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with soloist Jonathan Biss.
"Bounce" began with a small package — the news that he and his wife were going to become parents.
"The moment I found out, there was no hesitation that this piece would be inspired by this little one," said Schoenberg, who expects to become a parent in a few weeks. "The very first word that came to mind, both for the baby and the commission, was 'bounce.' It felt playful, innocent, fun, light. And rhythmic."
Schoenberg has bigger plans for "Bounce." He calls the composition a ballet (though there will be no dancing for tonight's premiere) and sees it becoming a four-movement piece with choreography for child dancers.
"When I think of ballet, I think of 'Rite of Spring,' a large-scale work," he said.
Schoenberg's career is beginning to flourish around the country. He has two commissions in Kentucky — one with the Lexington Philharmonic and one with the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington — and another in Atlanta. His American Symphony, debuted in 2010 by the Kansas City Symphony, is slated for performances in all 50 states. (There are talks to bring it to Aspen, but no date has been set.) Schoenberg has a teaching position at UCLA, and with his father, he wrote a score for the Filipino thriller "Graceland."
Schoenberg, though, points to Aspen as the center of his career. For four winters he has been composer-in-residence with the Music Festival's MORE program, which brings classical music into local schools. Not surprisingly, Schoenberg's route in Aspen started in a manner that would be considered alternative.
When Schoenberg first came to Aspen, much of the work he did was not as a composer but as a stagehand with the Music Festival. Moving chairs and music stands and making connections with a variety of colleagues were, in his view, a foundation for what he has done since.
"Honestly, that job prepared me so much to be a composer," he said. "Without stage crews, librarians, administrators, none of this happens. You got to meet all these amazing people. So much of being a composer is just getting your music out there, being visible."