Concerto for Orchestra (2019)

For Orchestra


Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Music Director


Full recording

Stream the full recording on-demand, from the WCRB Classical Radio Boston BSO broadcast (available until October 21, 2019)

Duration: 18 minutes

Performed live by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Boston (MA), September 21, 2019
Posted with permission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra

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“...the Concerto for Orchestra is a marvel of musical logic. […]

“In effect, the Concerto for Orchestra is a love letter to the BSO, an ensemble Nathan heard regularly in his youth. The opening features different sections of the orchestra in wildly varied episodes. Brasses sound out brash chords while strings supply an ethereal harmonic backdrop, like Ives’s The Unanswered Question on steroids. The melodies, played by woodwinds, are abstractions—simple rising and falling figures that ripple throughout the section.

“In the score’s calm episodes, Nathan is judicious in his use of dissonance, and the smooth lines, like strong drink, offer a biting finish. The final section returns listeners to the chaos of the opening as brass and woodwinds punctuate the string figures with spiky accents. All settle into a disquieting ending, where the instrumental forces coalesce onto a unison pitch.

“Leading with bold gestures, Nelsons shaped each section of Nathan’s work with an eye towards its architecture, and the orchestra answered his guidance with verve to make a strong case for this music. The BSO brass had a particularly fine outing, the section sounding out Nathan’s accents and clarion calls with seismic force. When the composer took the stage for bows, the audience showered him with enthusiastic applause.”

– Aaron Keebaugh, Boston Classical Review, 9.20.2019
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“But Munch would have approved of this opening night. The audience got a quarter of new music, and a remarkable quarter. Nathan’s Concerto for Orchestra falls into a lineage of similar pieces for orchestra, most famously one by Bartók, in which each section is handed a moment that shows off its best qualities. And Nathan’s new piece, a love letter of sorts to the orchestra, began with an explosion. The brass section blared like car horns, and built up, then toppled towers of open intervals. When the ruckus dissipated into delicate tones with the strings at the forefront, the piece invited listeners to notice the subtleties in each sonority. Everyone needed to think like an ensemble player and soloist all at once, including Nelsons, who smartly shaped the piece’s arcs. I’d happily have heard it over again as soon as it ended, and I’m hoping the premiere won’t be the last time the BSO plays it.”

– Zoë Madonna, The Boston Globe, 9.20.2019
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“Nathan’s contribution, his Concerto for Orchestra, provided the night’s expressive anchor. […] An 18-minute-long essay for large orchestra, the work falls into three parts. The first is basically slow, alternating heaving, microtonally tinged writing for brass instruments with lyrical statements for woodwinds and strings. Eventually, the tempo picks up and a vigorous, contrapuntal section ensues. This, in turn, is followed by a lengthy coda in which chorale-like lines emerge out of the strings’ sustained unison pitches. Throughout, the music’s mood is somber and reflective, while Nathan’s scoring is colorful and fully idiomatic. […]

“Nathan’s a gifted composer with a fine ear for color and a strong sense of musical structure. What’s more, he’s got a technical arsenal that’s hard to beat and he knows how to employ it without being off-putting. That’s a potent skill set. Above all, he writes meaningful, expressive music. Ultimately, due to its duration, content, and form, the Concerto struck me as less of a showpiece than a serious musical argument in the spirit of the great, 20th-century American symphonic tradition. That’s an overlooked body of work, to be sure, but a formidable one, all the same. Semantic distinctions aside, it’s wonderful to see a 35-year-old composer stepping so confidently into the line of Barber, Copland, Thomson, Harris, and, more recently, Albert, Rouse, and Stucky.”

– Jonathan Blumhofer, The Arts Fuse, 9.20.2019
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“The evening's premiere was Eric Nathan's "Concerto for Orchestra," an 18-minute celebration of the aural splendor of the orchestra. His riveting score offers cascading soundscapes that highlighted the orchestra's sections, much like the famous Bartok work that shares its name (which was commissioned also by the BSO.) The work broods, then pulses with orchestral climaxes in the fast-moving central section, at one point even bringing to mind the dramatic music Bernard Herrmann wrote for the film "North by Northwest," which Mr. Nelsons conducted with care and affection.”

– Robert Nesti, Edge Media Network, 9.24.2019
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“Nathan’s Concerto for Orchestra is an 18-minute-long celebration of a lifelong association with the BSO – first as a young audience member at Tanglewood, then student/performer and composer – and of the joy of music-making itself. Two blasts from the orchestra like the blare of a midtown Manhattan traffic jam contrasted quieter episodes as Nathan juxtaposed the hubbub of the outside world with the calm and focus of the concert hall. Ripples of melodic fragments rose from the winds as the music tentatively calmed and coalesced around the material being introduced. The strings then began a slow lamentation. Winds had their say, while seismic brass insinuated themselves to dominate the closing of this section. Scurrying strings sliced by slashing interventions from other sections dominated the next part, which ended in abrupt silence. Themes and motives from the first section return recombined and transformed to populate the closing. A tinge of sadness intensified, but the concerto ended in the bright light of a unison. Nelsons’ keen sense of clarity and architecture gave each section breathing room to make its point. Even the loudest passages did not blur the profiles of the instruments involved. Nathan mentioned a 2018 performance of Lutoslawski’s Third Symphony as a major influence, but there was were also hints of Berg and a wink or two in Bartók’s direction which struck the ear on a first listen. Richly textured and at times dense, Nathan’s concerto nevertheless invited another hearing under Nelsons’ probing guidance and the characterful playing of the orchestra. […] Many of the BSO’s past openings have been billed as galas. Though Thursday’s wasn’t, it turned out to be perhaps the most gala opener in recent memory with the joy and vitality of its music-making setting a high bar for the rest of the season.”

– Kevin Wells, Bachtrack, 9.21.2019
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Feature articles:

Providence Journal, “Brown professor’s concerto to open Boston Symphony season,” by Keith Powers (9.19.2019)

EDGE Media Network, “Composer Eric Nathan: His Journey from Tanglewood to Symphony Hall,” by Robert Nesti (9.19.2019)


Eric Nathan with Brian McCreath, host at WCRB Classical Radio Boston

Eric Nathan with the BSO’s Brian Bell

Eric Nathan on the Original Gravity podcast with Keith Kirchoff and Greg Carlson

Photo credit: Keith Kirchoff

Photo credit: Keith Kirchoff

Program note

I think the first score I ever bought was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, and I remember first hearing it performed live by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, when I was a teenager. In graduate school, I studied with the late Steven Stucky, whose Second Concerto for Orchestra also became an important piece to me. Both of these works celebrate the instrument that is the orchestra, and that is what I wanted to do when the opportunity arose to compose a second piece for the BSO, this time to help open its 2019-20 season.

I grew up playing trumpet in orchestras, and listening to orchestral music has always been an important part of my life. The experience of a live performance is powerful. It is a ritual that congregates people so that we can listen to each other. It is a remarkable thing. These were some of my thoughts when I began to write this piece.

I feel that my music, at its heart, is really about music itself. My thoughts and feelings help create a scaffolding for my musical characters, but it is the elements of music – pitches, harmonies, motives – that create the music’s life. In the days after I finished writing, I realized that this piece is like a prism, through which many stories can be told. This is all to say, I hope you can let the piece take you on its own journey, whatever it may be.

Concerto for Orchestra is cast as a single, continuous movement in three parts. At the onset, two contrasting musical worlds are placed into juxtaposition, and possibly, conflict – clamorous and frenzied music centered on the pitch, E-flat, and still, intimate and fragile music centered a half-step away, on the pitch of E. This introduction provides building blocks for the music that follows. The first section consists of a series of connected episodes where we more intimately meet the instrumental families of the winds, strings and brass, with the percussion playing a supportive and guiding role throughout. At the center of the piece there is a fast, wildly racing section that culminates in a climax, leading into the final part, where we again find a sense of stillness, but also a chance to hear and understand earlier ideas in a new light.

Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director, Andris Nelsons.

- Eric Nathan

Robert Kirzinger’s program note from the BSO program book (excerpted below):

Eric Nathan’s Concerto for Orchestra is the composer’s second orchestral work commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the first was the space of a door, premiered by the BSOunder Andris Nelsons’ direction in November 2016. The apparently generic title of the new workpoints to a number of specific connections important to its origins, involving the BSO’s history and legacy; Nathan’s own history with the BSO as audience member, student, and, more recently,professional composer; and, further, the composer’s personal musical relationships over the years. The Concerto for Orchestra is a celebration of these connections and of the expressive personalities that emerge from the artistic collective that is the symphony orchestra.

Although there are plenty of precedents for the idea of instrumental section-based, symphonic virtuosity—Hector Berlioz and Richard Strauss come to mind—it was probably Paul Hindemithwho first coined the title “Concerto for Orchestra” (“Konzert für Orchester” in German) for hisOpus 38, completed in 1925. That piece is a neoclassical update of the early 18th-century Baroque concerto grosso, setting a group of virtuoso soloists within the orchestral texture.Whatever its origins, Hindemith’s idea started a trend: the “concerto for orchestra” designation was soon taken up in the 1920s and ’30s by such composers as Vagn Holmboe, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Walter Piston, Alfredo Casella, Goffredo Petrassi (in spades—he ultimately wrote eight pieces by that title), and Zoltán Kodály before the most famous Concerto for Orchestra ofall, Béla Bartók’s, which was the result in 1944 of a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Koussevitzky led the first performances of Bartók’s piece at Symphony Hall in earlyDecember 1944, repeating it—with the revised ending we know today—at the end of themonth, and taking it to New York City’s Carnegie Hall in January 1945. Now the best-knownof the Koussevitzky/BSO commissions (edging Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms), Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra arguably “made” the genre. Later composers taking up the concerto-for- orchestra challenge—among them Elliott Carter, Oliver Knussen, and Jennifer Higdon—needed toreckon with Bartók’s precedent. Two of Eric Nathan’s venerable predecessors, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt, also responded to BSO commissions by writing concertos for orchestra. Babbitt’s piece—a characteristically sly deviation in the title rendering it Concerti for Orchestra—was premiered in January 2005 under James Levine’s direction. The Sessions work, composed for the BSO’s centennial and premiered in 1981 under Seiji Ozawa, won the PulitzerPrize. In his own comments on his piece, Sessions wrote, “This piece represents, first of all, anexpression of gratitude for all that the Boston Symphony Orchestra has meant to me since I firstheard it almost exactly seventy years ago.” Take away the “seventy” and replace it with “twenty-five” or so, and you have something akin to Eric Nathan’s BSO associations.

Those associations extend back to the composer’s childhood, when his family made the easily manageable trip to Tanglewood from Larchmont, New York, just north of New York City. (A further strong early impression was seeing Wynton Marsalis and his band play at Lincoln Center.) As a kid Nathan studied both piano and trumpet and became a good enough trumpet player to attend the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. He participated in BUTI performances and witnessed concerts by the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows and the BSO. It was in part this experience that cemented his decision to make his career as a musician, and over the course of a few years he began to prefer spending his time composing rather than practicing. As with most composers, though, his experience as a performer indelibly affected his approachto composition. He’d written his first piece, for trumpet, because he wanted such a piece forhimself to play. To this day Nathan’s music exhibits a concern for idiomatic instrumentalcharacter that is clearly rooted in his own experience as a player—which partly explains why many of his pieces, especially the solo works, are very difficult, reveling in the joyful challenge of virtuosity. […]

Living in Providence, Eric Nathan has been able to attend BSO concerts frequently in the past few years, and in writing his Concerto for Orchestra was inspired by the experience of anorchestral concert. The simultaneous, contrasting “clamorous” and quiet music at the start of the piece metaphorically suggest the dichotomy between the tumult of the outside world and the sense of community and focus within the concert hall. Nathan also thought about the presenceof his piece on the BSO’s season-opening concerts, in which the orchestra and its Symphony Hall constituency reconvene after a season apart.

From its initial confrontation and tension, the music gradually becomes more focused. This process comes into even sharper relief later in the piece, the orchestra arriving together at an“imperfect” unison, a gesture Nathan has found himself returning to in several pieces, like apainter exploring a particular bit of iconography. The idea of an ongoing conversation with himself relates, too, to the interplay of ideas, variably explicit and variably intentional, fromother composers’ work, such as a nod to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. It’s a practice Nathan borrowed from Steven Stucky, and one used to great effect in the space of a door; here, such references are oblique to the point of obscurity, but their hidden presence is enriching.

The raucousness of the opening music includes asking the brass for sounds “like a car horn” aswell as tuning some notes microtonally flat, a sonority that will return much later in the piece. The trombones initiate faster music, which is interrupted by a gap of two bars—pianissimo high first violins and low cellos and double basses evoking silence. These two extremes emphasize the two simultaneous characters the composer mentions in his own comments on the piece (see page 54). Bassoons are added to the frenetic trombones before the gesture is ceded to clarinets. This fades out, to be replaced with a simple figure of a short note leaping upwards to a long, sustained note, first stated by a single oboe, then spreading throughout the woodwinds, staggered at first, growing more active, and culminating in a unison statement.

The focus then shifts to strings. The first violins play a melody marked “Sacred; intimately; grieving,” over sparse accompaniment; light chords in almglocken, vibraphone, and harp addan ethereal aura. Nathan sees this first violin passage additionally as a “solo for conductor”—theassignment of the melody to the first violins as a group demands the conductor’s intervention to shape and mediate the melody as a solo violinist might. Intensity increases and results in apassage of unsynchronized, “teeming” activity in the woodwinds. (The aleatoric texture hereand elsewhere is one standardized by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. Nathan cites athrilling 2018 performance of Lutosławski’s Third Symphony by the Tanglewood Music CenterOrchestra and Thomas Adès as having directly influenced his Concerto for Orchestra.) Brass in a kind of broken chorale dominate the end of this first part.

At the center of the piece is a deliberately contrasting, aggressive episode featuring perpetual-motion strings with sharp punctuation from the other sections. The strings’ sixteenth-notes are taken up by winds, and the timbres alternate, eventually transforming into an insistent foundation of repeated chords in triplets. These persist as the music dovetails into a sustained, shimmering moment that dissolves as the aggressive music returns. Coming as something of a shock, a grand pause—complete orchestral silence—signals a recapitulation of sorts of the opening, but with some of the other musical ideas recurring in combination and the latent sense of sorrow reemerging in the final minutes. With only brief reminders of instrumental section highlights, these last glowing pages recast the full orchestra into a blended, multihued whole.

- Robert Kirzinger
Composer/annotator ROBERT KIRZINGER is the BSO’s Associate Director of ProgramPublications
(Reprinted from