Ever since the success of my series of wind ensemble works “Places in the West”, I’ve been wanting to write a companion piece for national parks on the other side of the north American continent. The earlier work, consisting of GLACIER, THE YELLOWSTONE FIRES, ARCHES, and ZION, spanned some twenty years of my composing life, and since the pieces called for differing groups of instruments, and were in slightly different styles from each other, I never considered them to be “connected” except in their subject matter. In their depiction of both the scenery and the human history within these wondrous places, they had a common goal: awaking the listener to the fragile beauty that is in them; and calling attention to the ever more crucial need for preservation and protection of these wild places, unique in all the world.
With this new work, commissioned by a consortium of college and conservatory wind ensembles led by the University of Georgia, I decided to build upon that same model—but to solidify the process. The result, consisting of three movements (each named for a different national park in the eastern US), is a bona-fide symphony. While the three pieces could be performed separately, they share a musical theme—and also a common style and instrumentation. It is a true symphony, in that the first movement is long and expository, the second is a rather tightly structured scherzo-with-trio, and the finale is a true culmination of the whole.
The first movement, “Everglades”, was the original inspiration for the entire symphony. Conceived over the course of two trips to that astonishing place (which the native Americans called “River of Grass”, the subtitle of this movement), this movement not only conveys a sense of the humid, lush, and even frightening scenery there—but also an overview of the entire settling-of- Florida experience. It contains not one, but two native American chants, and also presents a view of the staggering influence of modern man on this fragile part of the world. Beginning with a slow unfolding marked “Heavy, humid”, the music soon presents a gentle, lyrical theme in the solo alto saxophone. This theme, which goes through three expansive phrases with breaks in between, will appear in all three movements of the symphony. After the mood has been established, the music opens up to a rich, warm setting of a Cherokee “morning song”, with the simple happiness that this part of Florida must have had prior to the nineteenth century. This music, enveloping and comforting, gradually gives way to a more frenetic, driven section representative of the intrusion of the white man. Since Florida was populated and developed largely due to the introduction of a train system, there’s a suggestion of the mechanized iron horse driving straight into the heartland. At that point, the native Americans become considerably less gentle, and a second chant seems to stand in the way of the intruder; a kind of “warning song”. The second part of this movement shows us the great swampy center of the peninsula, with its wildlife both in and out of the water. A new theme appears, sad but noble, suggesting that this land is precious and must be protected by all the people who inhabit it. At length, the “morning song” reappears in all its splendor, until the sunset—with one last iteration of the “warning song” in the solo piccolo.
Functioning as a scherzo, the second movement, “Great Smoky Mountains”, describes not just that huge park itself, but one brave soul’s attempt to climb a mountain there. It begins with three iterations of the UR-theme (which began the first movement as well), but this time as up-tempo brass fanfares in octaves. Each time it begins again, the theme is a little slower and less confident than the previous time—almost as though the hiker were becoming aware of the daunting mountain before him. But then, a steady, quick-pulsed ostinato appears, in a constantly shifting meter system of 2/4- 3/4 in alteration, and the hike has begun. Over this, a slower new melody appears, as the trek up the mountain progresses. It’s a big mountain, and the ascent seems to take quite awhile, with little breaks in the hiker’s stride, until at length he simply must stop and rest. An oboe solo, over several free cadenza-like measures, allows us (and our friend the hiker) to catch our breath, and also to view in the distance the rocky peak before us. The goal is somehow even more daunting than at first, being closer and thus more frighteningly steep. When we do push off again, it’s at a slower pace, and with more careful attention to our footholds as we trek over broken rocks. Tantalizing little views of the valley at every switchback make our determination even stronger. Finally, we burst through a stand of pines and—-we’re at the summit! The immensity of the view is overwhelming, and ultimately humbling. A brief coda, while we sit dazed on the rocks, ends the movement in a feeling of triumph.
The final movement, “Acadia”, is also about a trip. In the summer of 2014, I took a sailing trip with a dear friend from North Haven, Maine, to the southern coast of Mt. Desert Island in Acadia National Park. The experience left me both exuberant and exhausted, with an appreciation for the ocean that I hadn’t had previously. The approach to Acadia National Park by water, too,
was thrilling: like the difference between climbing a mountain on foot with riding up on a ski-lift, I felt I’d earned the right to be there. The music for this movement is entirely based on the opening UR-theme. There’s a sense of the water and the mysterious, quiet deep from the very beginning, with seagulls and bell buoys setting the scene. As we leave the harbor, the theme (in a canon between solo euphonium and tuba) almost seems as if large subaquatic animals are observing our departure. There are three themes (call them A, B and C) in this seafaring journey—but they are all based on the UR theme, in its original form with octaves displaced, in an upside-down form, and in a backwards version as well. (The ocean, while appearing to be unchanging, is always changing.) We move out into the main channel (A), passing several islands (B), until we reach the long draw that parallels the coastline called Eggemoggin Reach, and a sudden burst of new speed (C). Things suddenly stop, as if the wind had died, and we have a vision: is that really Mt. Desert Island we can see off the port bow, vaguely in the distance? A chorale of saxophones seems to suggest that. We push off anew as the chorale ends, and go through all three themes again—but in different instrumentations, and different keys. At the final tack-turn, there it is, for real: Mt. Desert Island, big as life. We’ve made it. As we pull into the harbor, where we’ll secure the boat for the night, there’s a feeling of achievement. Our whale and dolphin friends return, and we end our journey with gratitude and celebration.
I am profoundly grateful to Jaclyn Hartenberger, Professor of Conducting at the University of Georgia, for leading the consortium which provided the commissioning of this work.