Composer in residence Samuel Jones ends tenure with the Seattle Symphony

By Peter A. Klein

On Friday, June 3, the Seattle Symphony presented a “Samuel Jones Celebration” at Benaroya Recital Hall. Jones, who turned 76 last week, is about to end his 14-year tenure as the Symphony’s Composer in Residence.

Jones’ music is part of the American tonalist tradition that outgoing Music Director Gerard Schwarz has championed in performances and recordings. He freely uses modern compositional techniques, but his music is usually rooted in key centers—sometimes more than one simultaneously. Musical architecture and expression walk hand in hand. Seattle audiences have enthusiastically received Jones’ works, including concertos for horn, tuba, trombone and cello.

The program opened with Jones’ Piano Sonata. This highly-structured piece establishes a tension between two keys, with booming bass notes and jagged rhythms higher up the keyboard working their way through the framework of classical sonata form. The Sonata received a vigorous, deft and well thought-out performance by pianist Kimberly Russ.

Next, something much more intimate: “Four Haiku,” to poems by John Stone. The subjects range from an ironically martial pronouncement to contemplations of death, the motion of the moon and stars, and birds in flight. Mezzo-soprano Jenny Knapp sang with exquisite sensitivity, her vocalization perfectly matching the varied texts and the tone painting in Adam Stern’s subtle piano accompaniment.

Jones’ recent Cello Sonata—for me the pinnacle of the evening—was written for the husband-and-wife Fischer Duo. Like the Piano Sonata, it employs two tonalities, with two muscular outer movements sandwiching an unabashedly romantic slow movement. The latter combines a melody the composer wrote as a wedding present for his wife with quotations from the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a piece of great personal significance for the Fischers. This is embellished with Brahmsian piano writing and sprinkled with a bit of modern spice. The concluding movement is a fast and furious “perpetual motion.” Cellist Julian Schwarz gave a thoroughly satisfying reading, exhibiting both burnished lyricism and nimble virtuosity.

The composer’s Southern roots were evident in excerpts from his opera “A Christmas Memory,” based on an autobiographical Truman Capote story. Soprano Christian Siemens and boy soprano Benjamin Richardson sang beautifully, and their duets were touching. But some of Siemens’ high notes resounded a bit too loudly for the small hall.

The program concluded with a chamber arrangement (for string quartet, double bass and piano) of “Janus,” named for the Greek god whose dual faces view both the past and future. It was originally heard in full orchestral dress at the inauguration of Benaroya Hall. The piece provided a fitting bookend to Jones’ residency, the sweeping scale passages of the final section propelling the music forward with joy and optimism. I hope they foretell many more works from this composer’s pen.

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