The dictionary defines “providence” as “the wisdom, care, and guidance believed to be provided by God.” The New Jersey Youth Symphony is a result of wisdom, care and guidance for its talented and dedicated youth and the future they represent. I wrote New Providence Overture to honor the achievements of both the participants and the facilitators. To capture the vitality and optimism of its performers, I created sections of full orchestral textures alternating with solos, duets, trios which, besides creating tremendous energy and fun, showcase the talents and abilities of each individual. The work ends with a final climactic burst from the entire orchestra. Bravo to all involved in the New Jersey Youth Symphony!
Often I find that the initial impetus for writing a composition comes many years before the actual creation. Such is the case with Monument. In the late 1980s, I visited the Viet Nam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. for the first time. As is the reaction of most, I was deeply moved. Besides the fact that the Viet Nam War was a major focus of my youth, I was struck by the intense reactions of others around me including young children who suddenly became silent and foreign visitors that slowly and reverently moved past the names. The magnificent artistry of Maya Lin’s structure magnified in a realistic and dignified manner the true cost of that war.
Musically, I heard great potential that day but it wasn’t until a commission from the Barlow Endowment for Musical Composition in 1996 that I was able to realize those ideas with an orchestral work for the Memphis Symphony/Alan Balter, Music Director.
Monument is a seventeen-minute single-movement composition for large orchestra that depicts the emotional reactions of a Viet Nam War veteran visiting “The Wall” for the first time. It begins with a tentative, apprehensive, courageous approach, continues with intense recollections of battle scenes with the unbearable fear and unimaginable devastation, and ends with partial healing and a glimpse of peacefulness.
Although I read many accounts by veterans of Viet Nam which opened my mind to their experiences during and after the war, I wish to especially recognize Albert French, whose book “Patches of Fire” (Anchor Books, Doubleday) revealed with devastating candor the absolute terror of combat and the depth of destruction of those that survived. Monument is subtitled “Time only heals a clean wound.”, which is a line from Mr. French’s book. In later conversations with Mr. French, he also described in poignant detail his first visit to the Memorial and helped clarify what I needed to say musically.
Monument is dedicated to all those whose lives were changed irreparably by the Viet Nam War.
As I look back over the works I have written in the past twenty years, I find that many have been created to honor a person or event. Examples are: Simple Lives – a celebration of the focused, pure living of my grandmother and her sisters; In Time – a memorial to those that risked and lost their lives at Tiananmen Square; Three Portraits – musical sketches of my good friend, Scott Mendoker; Hommage: JFK – a fanfare for John F. Kennedy; and Monument – ruminations on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C..
While these subjects were deeply inspirational to me, the event which dominates all others was the killing of my brother, William Evan Sampson, by the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis at a demonstration in Greensboro, N.C. on November 3, 1979. Although the killing of Bill and five others was done in full view of T.V. news cameras, and the murderers were known local residents, it took three agonizing trials before a small amount of justice was done.
For years, my normal life — including composition — fell by the wayside as I and the people around me grasped for some explanation and a path through the whirlwind of painful images. When I did write again, I avoided even an attempt at expressing the intense and complex emotions following November 3rd.
Finally, in May of 1981, I wrote a work titled In Memoriam: W.E.S.. A series of works followed including Morning Music, Distant Voices and Winter Ceremony. What I began to notice was that each new work, even the ones that did not specifically focus on Bill’s murder, seemed to grow out of the trauma in Greensboro. The impact reverberated in all aspects of my life.
In 1993, when I was awarded a commission by Paul Tobias and his organization — New Heritage Productions — , the Bergen Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, I first created Three Arguments for unaccompanied cello, which was again an intense revisiting of fourteen years earlier. When Turns was begun, I was exhausted from facing Greensboro. So, I looked to the most positive aspect of my present life: my family. Turns is a celebration of the support and unflinching love my wife, Christine, and two sons, Ben and Mark, have given to me for over twenty years. This music reflects a struggle to reaffirm life and family and to allow wounds to heal, despite past traumas, despite Greensboro. Although not without its moments of inward reflection, it portrays strength, love and fulfillment.
Following is a brief description of Turns:
The cello begins the first movement alone creating an atmosphere of intimacy and longing. Various orchestra voices enter gradually commenting on the cello statements. When the strings signal the end of the introduction by a gentle rhythmic accompaniment, the cello begins a long soliloquy using a motive that is continually transformed climaxing in a rise into the highest register of the cello.
A rhythmic variation on the motive follows, propelling the work to an even higher sense of urgency mixed with playfulness and whimsy. One more thematic statement by the cello in octaves signals the end of the movement which then quickly relaxes into repose.
The second movement also begins with the cello alone, but this time entirely pizzicato. Pizzicato is the most percussive pitched sound available to the cello and gives an impression of a voice lost. Even though the lines played by the cello are lyrical, the natural lack of resonance gives the notes a constrained quality.
As the cello finishes this section, a tremendous crescendo from the orchestra empowers the soloist. The bow is added and the cello repeats the motive heard before as pizzicato with soaring strength. This continues on with a cocky, playful section distinguished by conversations between the soloist and orchestra.
After this scene is played out, the cello hints back to the pizzicato introduction. This time the instrument, though quiet, is full-voiced and empowered. There is a sense, though, that it wishes for a time past. This leads back into the playful material and then fades into another hint of the pizzicato beginning.
The third movement is an energetic fireball right from the beginning and never lets up. The form is a rondo with a theme first heard in the cello returning again and again, each time with a slightly different orchestral accompaniment. The work ends with one last flurry from the cello and an emphatic cadence.