Andy Akiho, steel pan & composer
David Danzmayr, conductor
Andy Akiho (b.1979): Beneath Lighted Coffers, Concerto for Steel Pan and Orchestra
Instrumentation: Scored for piccolo, pairs of flutes, oboes and clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings
Duration: 28 minutes
Born in Columbia, South Carolina of Japanese heritage, virtuoso percussionist Andy Akiho now makes his home in New York and Portland, Oregon. While a student at the University of South Carolina, Akiho experimented with a variety of percussion instruments and flirted with West African and Brazilian drumming, but after spending time in Trinidad, has dedicated himself to the steel drums. A Pulitzer finalist and a Grammy-nominated composer, Akiho has been honored with a number of prestigious awards and has performed his music from Los Angeles to Berlin to Taiwan.
Composed for the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, DC), Beneath Lighted Coffers is Akiho’s homage to the Roman Pantheon. The structure, built by Emperor Hadrian around 126 AD on the former site of a temple commissioned by Marcus Agrippa, is an architectural marvel and features a central oculus, or eye, at the zenith of its dome, which opens to the sky. 2000 years after its construction, the Pantheon remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
The composer’s descriptions of the individual movements are as follows:
Inspired by the Pantheon’s portico, the entryway that one sees walking up a once narrow path to the building. The portico is inviting and unassuming, and the grandeur of the dome cannot be seen from afar, creating a somewhat unexpected experience in the rotunda. What captivates me most about the Greek-inspired entrance are the enormous, monolithic, Corinthian granite columns that were shipped from Egypt.
The architecture mirrors the 140 trapezoidal coffers, or sunken panels, geometrically arranged in five concentric circles of twenty-eight in the Pantheon’s concrete dome. The coffers create an optical illusion that draws the observer towards the dome’s center, and they look different depending on the light of day streaming in through the oculus. Musically, I derived the melodic material of this movement from a 28-note palindromic scale that spans the entire range of the orchestra, and the structure of the movement is built in five groups of 140 beats, often sub-divided into five groups of twenty-eight.
The many different skies that appear through the oculus continually change the way the Pantheon is experienced. They inspired this central movement, whose music comes from a more personal and intuitive place, mimicking the unpredictable clouds and light variances above and through the exposed sky in the oculus. The oculus also acts as an architectural keystone, although it is a purely empty space that has held the entire unreinforced concrete dome together for nearly two thousand years. Like the oculus, this middle movement is central to the structure of the entire composition.
The brief fourth movement drew inspiration from the Pantheon’s marbled floor patterns and the music of the Italian Baroque composer and violinist Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), who is buried in the Pantheon. I have always been a fan of Corelli’s chamber music, and I pay homage to him by alluding to the ‘Grave’ movement from his Concerto Grosso No. 3. The original lays out a melodic line of 45 notes for the violin, which I associated with the 45 circles of the Pantheon’s patterned, marbled floor, imagining rain falling from the oculus above, shifting these notes and timbres around before disappearing in the drainage system beneath the floor.
Writers and historians often use adjectives like ‘permanence’ and ‘progeny’ to describe the Pantheon because it is the best-preserved and most influential building from ancient Rome: it has miraculously endured numerous years, storms, fires, wars, governments, barbarians, and popes. The Pantheon brings together the past and the future, and I am very grateful to have had an opportunity to experience the history of the building and its architectural greatness while writing this piece in the present day.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 “The Great”
Instrumentation: Scored for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, horns, three trombones, timpani and strings
Duration: 48 minutes
What we now know as Schubert’s Ninth was the thirty-one-year-old composer’s last completed symphony—he was working on a 10th at the time of his death—and his symphonic magnum opus, although the work sadly suffered a fate similar to many of the composer’s earlier symphonies. In October of 1826, Schubert presented a fully scored version of the symphony to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, The Society for the Friends of Music, one of Vienna’s most prestigious musical organizations. The Society gave the work a private run-through but ultimately deemed it too long and difficult to fund a public performance. And that is more or less where the story of “The Great” C Major Symphony ended, at least during the composer’s lifetime, for Schubert lacked sufficient funds to pay for a performance of his grand symphony himself and died two years later.
A decade or so after, composer Robert Schumann paid a visit to Schubert’s brother, Ferdinand, in Vienna, where he was shown a pile of the late composer’s manuscripts. “The riches that lay piled up there made me tremble with pleasure. Where to begin, where to stop?” Schumann would write. Among the sheaves of music was the manuscript of the C Major Symphony and Schumann persuaded Ferdinand to send the score to composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn, arguably the most influential conductor of his day. Still, despite Mendelssohn’s push, the work was slow to gain traction. It was performed in Vienna for the first time in 1839, but only with the first two movements, and when Mendelssohn took it to Paris and London, the musicians simply refused to play it.
Arguably it was the work’s magisterial length that proved the greatest hurdle, a quality Schumann himself referred to as its “heavenly lengths.” The slow introduction contributes to the score’s overall breadth, yet the Andante, which uncoils across seventy-seven bars, contains the materials with which Schubert will develop his Allegro proper. Take note of the dotted rhythm heard in the work’s second bar, for this rhythm will gradually become the focus. These note values will become compressed at the close of the introduction, giving the impression of a quickening tempo, until the Allegro ma non troppo (“fast but not too fast”) is reached and its rocking theme established. Following a clipped secondary theme delivered by the winds, Schubert introduces yet another theme presented by the trombones, contributing to this sonata form’s expanded length. Scoring for trombone is but one indication that the symphony as a genre had now entered the Romantic era. Schubert’s use of them here, not for power or color but to present the theme (and to do so within a piano dynamic) is noteworthy.
The initial character of the A minor Andante con moto is that of a subdued march, set in motion by the strings quiet introduction, before the oboe pipes the movement’s main theme invoking sounds of the Austrian countryside. But the idyllic opening evaporates when the entire orchestra explodes with the dotted, martial rhythm that will dominate much of what follows. After recalling the gentle opening strains, Schubert pivots completely. Warm French horns set up a new, romantic character which Schumann described as “descending from another world” and the strings offer up an expansive theme. The return of the opening material proves to be no mere recapitulation, however, for Schubert ups the game with a stunning new series of ideas and decorations, including glorious cello writing, terrifying passages in the lower brass, and martial trumpet calls. Schubert’s seemingly inexhaustible ideas seem to tumble out effortlessly in this sublime, modified sonata-form movement.
The strings open the C Major Scherzo with a muscular theme, from which Schubert spins forth a folksy dance in the winds and a lovely, string-dominated waltz. This material is brilliantly developed with offbeat jabs and peppered with a dash of counterpoint for good measure. A series of repeated chords in the horns and winds announce the contrasting A Major trio, a warm, rich and noble theme presented in parts by the entire orchestra that again draws on the opening dotted rhythm.
The relentless Allegro vivace finale features no less than six ideas built almost entirely on this jagged rhythm. The galloping, incessant accompaniment requires tremendous energy of the players which may have proven a deterrent to the work’s early performances, but the excitement generated pays great dividends. The movement includes an extended development and a majestic coda featuring a striking series of unexpected modulations and intense, Beethovenian outbursts. The thrilling final bars crown this colossal work with a glorious finish.
Time, of course, always has the final say, and despite its frustrated beginnings, “The Great”—a moniker attached to the work to differentiate it from Schubert’s earlier, and far more modest C major Symphony—has since become a beloved staple of the concert repertoire. No doubt we can all relate to Schumann’s appreciation of its inherent qualities: “Deep down in this work there lies more than mere song, more than mere joy and sorrow, as already expressed in music in a hundred other instances. It transports us to a world where I cannot recall ever having been before.”
© Marc Moskovitz