From the Sea Program Notes

By Laurie Shulman © 2019
First North American Serial Rights Only

The Oceanides, Op.73 (Aollottaret)

Jean Sibelius

Born 8 December, 1865 in Tavastehus, Finland  / Died 20 September, 1957 in Järvenpää, Finland

In early 1914, the wealthy American arts patron Carl Stoeckel wrote to Sibelius, inviting him to compose a new work for a festival in Norfolk, Connecticut. Shortly afterward, the composer Horatio Parker sweetened the deal offering additional funds if Sibelius would conduct the new work. The composer then learned that Yale University would be conferring an honorary doctorate on him. This confluence of events augured well for an American sojourn, and Sibelius accepted.

His steamship arrived in New York in May 1914. Sibelius was overwhelmed at the adulation from the American press and public and thoroughly enjoyed the lavish hospitality Stoeckel extended. He later to biographer Karl Ekman, “I have never, before or after, lived such a wonderful life.” Stoeckel and Parker hand-picked an orchestra comprising the best players from New York and Boston. The composer was thrilled, writing to his friend Axel Carpelan:

The orchestra is wonderful!! Surpasses anything we have in Europe. The woodwind blend is of such an order that you have to put your hand to your ear to hear them in ppp even if the English horn and bass clarinet are there. And even the double basses sing.

His vivid description applies very well to the whispering shimmer that opens The Oceanides. Stoeckel had requested a choral work, but Sibelius was thinking in terms of orchestra. His initial conception was a three-movement work called Rondo der Wellen [Rondo of the Waves]. He condensed it to one movement and changed the title.

Nearly all the Sibelius tone poems have origins in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. The Oceanides is an exception. Sibelius had a lifelong passion for Greek, Latin, and the marvels of classical antiquity. This work is an expression of that love.

In Greek mythology, the Oceanides were sea nymphs, regarded as the daughters of Oceanus.  They lived in rivers, streams, and other waters. Not surprisingly, the music swells with the tidal pull of the sea. Arches, wave figures, rocking strings and harp glissandi suggest the lapping of water onto shoreline and the surge of larger waves. The Oceanides has often been compared to Debussy’s La mer (1903-05), which preceded it by a decade.  While Sibelius’s piece does employ the whole tone and modal scales characteristic of Debussy’s impressionist style, the music bears many Sibelian traits. These include woodwind melodies in parallel thirds, pedal points in the brass and timpani, and the tremolando strings.

The Oceanides consists of a slow crescendo extended over about ten minutes, growing to a splendid climax. Despite the expanded orchestra, Sibelius seems at pains to show how delicately  a large ensemble can be deployed. Most of the piece is hushed and subdued, yet the writing is brilliant and luminous, with unusual touches. The double basses, for example, are mostly independent from the cellos, and the timpani play almost constantly, often with a significant harmonic role.

The score calls for three flutes (two doubling piccolo), three oboes (two doubling English horn), three clarinets (two doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (two doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, glockenspiel, two harps, and strings.


Garth Neustadter

Born 4 May 1986 in Green Bay, Wisconsin
Currently residing in Los Angeles

Garth Neustadter is an Emmy Award-Winning composer and multi-instrumentalist. His works have been commissioned, performed, and recorded by artists including Grammy Award-winning violinist Hilary Hahn, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, and Japanese-American violinist Ryu Goto. A graduate of the Yale School of Music, Neustadter resides in Los Angeles, where he composes scores for film, television, and concert music projects. An active performer, he is on the roster of LA Opera and LA Master Chorale.

Written for the Percussion Collective, Seaborne is a substantial multi-media work originally for six percussionists and video projection. This performance is the premiere of the orchestral version, for percussion and strings. In collaboration with filmmaker Kjell van Sice, Neustadter has addressed our endangered oceans. Both music and film explore three distinct perspectives of the sea. Neustadter explains:

This work explores our perception of water from aerial, surface, and underwater vantage points. Water possesses an inherent motion and rhythm, and I am interested in reflecting the tension between the potential and kinetic energies we observe, as well as our perception of time. Musically, my language attempts to find a balance between gestures that feel almost primal or ancient juxtaposed against more modern and familiar textures. Often, motifs are introduced in simple ensemble unisons, gradually developing and evolving in ways that might emulate a communal improvisatory experience. Overall, I attempt to create a strong synergy and synesthesia with the photography, in that our perception of color and light is strongly reflected in the music throughout.

Van Sice adds, “Although the surface layer of water is thinner than a hair, the way in which it interacts with light and the forces of wind and currents make it the most dynamic and ever-changing natural phenomenon.” Neustadter’s fluid writing for the six keyboards (four of which are pitched mallet instruments) is a vivid complement to van Sice’s gorgeous cinematography.

The score calls for two marimbas, two xylophones, two vibraphones, and strings.


Become River

John Luther Adams

Born 23 January 1953 in Meridian, Mississippi
Currently residing in rural Mexico and Manhattan


Based in Alaska from 1975 until 2014, Adams has long been closely associated with the arctic climate and landscape of his former adopted home. He is also active in environmental activities. His music is profoundly influenced by nature and the primordial power of the great outdoors. He does not write in traditional forms. Instead, his music draws its impetus from the unspoilt world where civilization has not intruded: infinite, mysterious, endlessly varied in its lights and shadows.

As a teenager, Adams played drums in rock bands. An early passion for Frank Zappa led him to the iconoclastic music of Edgard Varèse and the vast, enigmatic scores of Morton Feldman. Adams has found his own elemental roots and inspiration in the frozen tundra of Alaska and the unique climatic and geographical environment was his home for so long. His compositions are sonic evocations of the deep connections between landscape and the human spirit.

Since 2014, he has divided his time between the desert of rural Mexico and ‘the wilds of Manhattan’ (as he calls it). Also in 2014, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean, which was commissioned by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. He interrupted work on Become Ocean to write Become River for Steven Schick and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.  Adams’s composer’s note chronicles the piece’s serendipitous origin.

Steven Schick and I were having dinner together.

I was just beginning work on a large-scale piece for the Seattle Symphony. So, when Steve asked me if I might be interested in composing a new piece for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, I must have hesitated.

Deftly, Steve asked me to tell him a little about the Seattle piece.

I went on at length about the music I’d begun to imagine, finally concluding:

“It’s called Become Ocean. The title comes from a poem that John Cage wrote in honor of Lou Harrison.”

Cage observes that the breadth and variety of Harrison’s music make it “resemble a river in delta.

He concludes that:

LiStening to it

we becOme


“So you’re already composing a symphonic ocean,” Steve said.

“Maybe for a smaller orchestra you could go ahead and compose that river in delta.”

Steve had me, and I knew it. Within a week, I’d begun work on Become River.

From a single high descending line, this music gradually expands into a delta of melodic streams flowing toward the depths.

I now imagine this river and its related ocean, as part of a larger series of pieces encompassing desert, mountain, tundra, and perhaps other landscapes and waterscapes.”

– John Luther Adams


The score calls for an orchestra organized in four instrumental choirs as follows:

I. 2 flutes (doubling piccolo); 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 2 trombones
II. 2 oboes, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 percussion [timpani, bowed crotale, orchestra bells, vibraphone, bass drum]
III. Violins 1A and 2A, Violas 1A and 2A, cellos 1A and 2A
IV. Violins 1B and 2B, violas 1B and 2B, cellos 1B and 2B, Double basses

Adams specifies that the four choirs be arranged on the stage as an interlocking network of musical streams on five levels, descending from upstage to downstage on risers.

Describing Become River, Adams observes, “From a single high descending line, this music gradually expands into a delta of melodic streams flowing toward the depths. I now imagine this river and its related ocean, as part of a larger series of pieces encompassing desert, mountain, tundra and perhaps other landscapes and waterscapes.”


La mer

Claude Debussy

Born 22 August, 1862 in St-Germain-en-Laye, France / Died 25 March, 1918 in Paris

In a letter to his friend André Messager written in 1903, Debussy alludes to the fact that his father intended him to be a sailor.  While that did not come to pass, Debussy harbored a lifelong fascination for the sea.  His biographer Marcel Dietschy has noted that:

The sky and the sea thrilled Debussy; their immensity, their restless majesty held for him something implicitly unique and mysterious.

La mer is Debussy’s paean to the sea.  These three movements embody that most mercurial of natural wonders, the endlessly changing undulations of large bodies of water.  In its evocation of the play of light upon water and wave upon wave, it is the quintessential impressionist work in music.

Few figures in music have been better qualified to cross-pollinate among the various arts.  Debussy was highly cultured and well-read.  He likely had several literary works in mind while working on La mer.  Certainly he was acquainted with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, with its amazing evocations of the sea.

In the visual arts, Debussy’s grounding was equally strong.  He was well acquainted with both western and eastern art, and held strong opinions about both.  He considered Joseph Mallard William Turner (1775-1851) to be “the finest creator of mystery in art,” an observation the more striking since Turner’s reputation in France was ascendant at the same time Debussy’s own musical expertise was developing.  Among Japanese artists, his favorites were Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), the outstanding printmakers of the nineteenth century who exerted a powerful influence on Degas, van Gogh, and Gauguin.  So struck was Debussy by the power of Hokusai’s landscapes that he requested a segment from the Japanese master’s “The Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa,” from Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, be reproduced on the cover of La mer‘s full score.  The association with Debussy’s music has contributed to that painting’s remarkable fame.

La mer consists of three movements that Debussy called “symphonic sketches.”  They are, of course, more ambitious in scale than mere sketches:  full symphonic movements, though not in the sense of an 18th- or 19th-century symphony.  We are provided no programme per se beyond the movement titles, which translate to “From Dawn ’til Noon on the Sea,” “Play of the Waves,” and “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.”  Debussy eschews the kind of melody that one hums.  While his score is filled with melodic fragments, it is the sweep of orchestral detail bringing the infinite variety of the water to musical life that holds our attention.  Felicitous orchestral touches abound, but the parts for harp and muted brass, especially in the second movement, reward careful listening.

The ongoing disapproval of Debussy’s affair with Emma Bardac and his wife’s suicide attempt led to some negative reviews when La mer was premiered in October 1905. Another factor affecting its reception was contemporary arts criticism in France.  At the time, the connection between color and sound was a fashionable critical idea.  The premiere coincided with the first salon exhibition of the controversial painters who became known as the Fauves (“wild beasts”): Matisse, Rouault, and Derain. An anonymous program note published at the premiere made a strong connection between those artists’ bold colors and Debussy’s music.

It is true that La mer is a multi-sensory work, merging musical and visual ideas.  In fact, as shimmering and understated as this lovely score sounds to our 21st-century ears, La mer uses a flashy orchestra by Debussyan standards.  Generally, he favored a more understated palette, most evident in La mer‘s middle movement.  The surging climax in the finale is almost flamboyant in comparison.

La mer is scored for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, tam-tam, two harps, and strings.