When a composer is working on an orchestral piece, it's not as if he or she has an orchestra sitting in the studio that can play passages to see how it sounds.
"When you compose, the sound and the material and the world you're creating lives in your head," composer Adam Schoenberg says. "But how it lives in your head is very different from how it's translated by people. And every orchestra translates it differently, and each acoustic environment translates it differently."
Tuesday night, Los Angeles-based Schoenberg heard his latest work for the very first time, as played by the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.
Schoenberg's Canto, which will have its world premiere performance by the Philharmonic on Friday night at its classics concert, is the third new work the orchestra has commissioned in its Saykaly-Garbulinska composer-in-residence program, a partnership with the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington.
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In Schoenberg, the program has retained a busy composer enjoying commissions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Kansas City Symphony, which also is recording his orchestra works this summer. But Schoenberg says the Lexington commissions, and the city, stand out.
"It gives me time to get to know the community more, and I think the community will get to know me a little more; and to have this partnership where we are writing works for orchestra and chamber groups is a real challenge for a composer, to come into an environment where a composer says, 'here's my chamber music side, and now here's my orchestral side," Schoenberg says. "It's a great partnership, and I wish other organizations did that."
Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell says he senses that the Philharmonic audience is getting used to hearing new works, between the commissions and the larger amount of contemporary music on the orchestra's programs.
"If you look at the program, it's not just about the composer we have coming in; it's about making the music of now a regular mainstay of what we do," Terrell says. The season finale concert in May will have a work by popular Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. "It's a matter of getting people really comfortable that we're a living entity presenting works by living composers set alongside the canon of what has come before.
"The audience enjoys knowing this is the first time anyone gets to hear this."
One thing Schoenberg particularly likes is that it is an open commission allowing him to write whatever he wishes, as opposed to being asked to write a fanfare or something of that sort.
"It's about making the creative process in Lexington welcoming, if they want to go out on a limb a little bit," Terrell says.
And Schoenberg, with whom Terrell has worked before, did do something completely different for Canto.
"This really is an abstract, atmospheric, textural work," Schoenberg says. "It's the slowest piece of music I have ever written."
The work is much more about creating moods and colors than melodic lines, but Terrell and Schoenberg say that's in a pleasing, as opposed to jarring or unnerving, way. The piece, Schoenberg says, was inspired by the birth of his son Luca, whose name means "bringer of light," and there are passages in which it seems the light is coming in percussion flourishes and brass swells.
Lucas' birth disrupted the Philharmonic-Chamber Festival schedule, as Schoenberg was supposed to be here last summer. He will be back this August with a new string quartet that, after Canto's calm, will be "much more loud and aggressive," he says.