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Eighth Symphony (Theologoumena)

picc-3-eh3-3-bcl-3-cbsn;4-3-3-1; perc (3), timp, hp, pno, str.
5/17/2005 - 2/24/2006
James Levine
Boston Symphony Orchestra for James Levine

What does it tell us when a contemporary composer makes the decision to call a work a symphony, or deliberately sets out to write such a work? In general we can suppose that it bespeaks a certain seriousness of purpose and strong acknowledgement of the genre’s lineage. Charles Wuorinen’s symphonies show just these characteristics, despite a wide range of surface features that make each work very different from the others. Of the eight works designated by the composer as symphonies, the first two are juvenilia and are unavailable for performance; the published Third Symphony (1959) the composer considers a “pubescent” work. The next real symphony is the Percussion Symphony (1976), followed by the Two-Part Symphony (1978), the single-movement Microsymphony (1992), and most recently Symphony Seven (1997). The three-movement Eighth Symphony is, as it turns out, the most traditional in terms of its formal design, and intentionally so.

Wuorinen wrote the Eighth Symphony (Theologoumena) at the request of James Levine as one of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 125th Anniversary Commissions, and the score is dedicated to Levine. The BSO had previously commissioned his Fourth Piano Concerto for Levine’s first season as the orchestra’s music director; that piece, written for pianist Peter Serkin, was premiered by Serkin, Levine, and the BSO in March 2005. From the start, the Eighth Symphony was intended to be linked with another very recent work, Wuorinen’s orchestral symphonic poem Theologoumenon, commissioned for James Levine and the Met Orchestra to mark Levine’s sixtieth birthday in 2003. A “theologoumenon” is (as defined in the composer’s preface to the score of the Eighth Symphony) “a private non-dogmatic theological opinion.” A theologoumenon by the 2nd- or 3rd-century neo-Platonist commentator Maximus of Tyre served as inspiration for the writing of his symphonic poem. Levine and the Met Orchestra premiered Theologoumenon last month, on January 14, 2007, at Carnegie Hall.

From the beginning of the discussion about Theologoumenon, it was decided that Wuorinen would write, in addition to the symphonic poem, a traditional three-movement symphony for the BSO, and that the symphony could be performed as an independent piece or with Theologoumenon as an introductory movement. The Eighth Symphony is considered by the composer to be a continuation of that piece and is closely related to it musically.

In contrast to the variability and fantasia-like flow of Theologoumenon, Wuorinen decided that each of the three movements of the Eighth Symphony would be fairly single-minded in its character. This approach and the three-movement fast-slow-fast overall structure are a conscious reference to symphonic tradition. Wuorinen’s impeccable orchestration allows one to hear each detail of the music even within large ensembles. At the start of the first movement of the Eighth Symphony, the foreground details are a rising arpeggio in the strings and sharply accented chords in the brass. A flurry of sixteenth-notes in piano and mallet percussion appears soon after. These are elements that reappear throughout the movement. A dramatic event occurs near the end of the movement when the various instrumental sections coalesce into a texture of upward and downward arpeggios and scales, beginning in clarinets, then first violins, and gradually spreading out to piano and much of the rest of the orchestra. Other musical events to listen for are two fortissimo chords for the entire orchestra during the movement and another loud tutti chord that marks the movement’s close.

The slower second movement is statelier, restrained; a frequently heard dotted-rhythm gesture lends an almost ritualistic quality. Unlike the first movement, which kept a constant pulse throughout, this movement features frequent accelerations and decelerations of the initial tempo. There is an almost chamber music-like delicacy to much of this movement, but its close is insistent. With the third movement we return to a quick and constant pulse, although at the very end an accelerando brings the piece back full circle to the work’s opening tempo. The texture is mercurial and very light. One special aspect of the movement is the heightened presence of the piano, which takes a virtuosic obbligato-like role. A final recollection of the (unheard but present) Theologoumenon appears in the falling, sustained chromatic scale just before the strong series of chords that end the piece."

-Robert Kirzinger, program note for the BSO

"The Symphony is cast as three independently-minded movements, related by thirds, and cast in the mould of the fast-slow-fast traditional structure. A declamatory clash heralds the opening movement, which is energetic, spiky and angular. The busy, scurrying pace is maintained throughout. I’m impressed by Wuorinen’s colourful, imaginative scoring. At 16 minutes, the slow movement is the longest of the three. Here the solo instruments are spotlighted to a large degree. It feels as if we are in the realm of chamber music, with everything intimate and restrained. Wuorinen’s diaphanous orchestral writing provides a welcome contrast to the outer movement’s denser textures. The final movement is fleet and mercurial. The percussion section are given a chance to shine, and the piano makes its presence felt in an obbligato-type role."

-Stephen Greenbank MUSICWEB