Schoenberg finds right combo for a concerto like no other


Talk to some contemporary composers about past greats like Mozart or Beethoven and their eyes glaze over. Perhaps it’s a self-protective reaction. Who wants to feel these titanic spirits hovering over them while trying to create something individual and fresh? 

But for composer Adam Schoenberg, the past is just another resource. 

“The more you know about who came before, the more well-rounded and less isolated you become,” Schoenberg told the Journal recently at a West Hollywood cafe. “Today we’re experiencing a renaissance in new music. Composers of my generation and younger can really express themselves in any manner they want.”

A case in point is Schoenberg’s unusual triple concerto “Scatter,” for double bass, flute and cello. The single-movement, 18-minute score, which employs electronics, will be given its West Coast premiere by PROJECT Trio and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, led by French conductor Alexandre Bloch at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on Nov. 12. The program, with “Scatter” sandwiched between Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”) and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”), repeats the following evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

At 35, Schoenberg, a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he runs the composition and film scoring programs, is among the most performed composers of his generation. Over the years, Schoenberg has received commissions from more than two dozen American orchestras. “Scatter” was commissioned by four orchestras, with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra being the first to sign on.

Schoenberg wrote “Scatter” for PROJECT Trio, the three-piece chamber ensemble whose unique combination of instruments — Peter Seymour’s double bass, Greg Pattillo’s flute and Eric Stephenson’s cello — attracted him. Next he is writing a concerto for two pianos and then a more customary violin concerto for soloist Anne Akiko Meyers. “Usually a composer’s first concerto is for piano or violin,” Schoenberg said, “I’m going about concerto writing in the wrong order.” 

In addition to using the classical music idiom and a traditional orchestra, “Scatter” moves dynamically from pop, funk and fusion to electronic sounds made by a computer played by a percussionist in the orchestra.

For Seymour, PROJECT Trio’s double bassist, Schoenberg’s well-crafted mix of styles does more than just generate striking contrasts. “Adam’s music blurs the line between classical and the sounds of today,” Seymour said. “He captures our style and performing energy, and the other-worldly use of electronics creates new textures.”

Though the score doesn’t allow much room for improvisation, Schoenberg composed it by initially letting rip an improvisational flow of possibilities on piano. He said he believes in the power of the subconscious, which he called “a pure place.” What surfaces from the subconscious, however, doesn’t necessarily make an effective piece of music — a lesson Schoenberg learned from his father, Steven, a composer, songwriter and pianist. (Father and son collaborated on the score to the 2012 movie thriller “Graceland.”)

“I’m an intuitive composer,” Schoenberg said. “But as my father likes to say, improvisation is not a composition. Material emerges that has to be selected and developed. I record hours of improvisation. It’s about tapping into a deep emotional space that makes you feel something powerful and moving. That’s when I know I’ve found something meaningful.”

As an example, Schoenberg cited the end of the second section of “Scatter,” where the orchestra builds in an angular, jagged manner, finally reaching what he called “a bang.”

“You feel the audience,” he said. “They weren’t breathing for a moment. That’s the power of music.”

Schoenberg graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where he felt alienated because he was writing tonal music — judged unfashionable at the time. He later studied with composers John Corigliano and Robert Beaser at the Juilliard School, where he wrote his thesis on film composer Thomas Newman. 

“At Oberlin, I didn’t feel as free to grow and evolve my own aesthetic,” Schoenberg said. “My scores came back with red ink. But at Juilliard, Corigliano and Beaser encouraged me to trust myself and explore the possibilities of writing for an orchestra as efficiently as possible.”

Though he started on piano at age 3, Schoenberg said he wasn’t sure he wanted to become a composer until college. Aside from his father being a composer, the pull of destiny may also have played a part in his eventual commitment to the art.

For one thing, it didn’t hurt having the Schoenberg surname. Like the demanding 20th-century Austrian 12-tone composer, Arnold Schoenberg, who eventually settled in Los Angeles, he’s also Jewish and a composer. As far as he knows, the connection ends there. He’s awaiting the results from a Schoenberg DNA test, due in mid-November. 

To his surprise, a genealogy tree indicated that he’s a distant relation to George Gershwin. Since his aesthetic is generally closer to composers like Gershwin and Aaron Copland — spirited, optimistic, rhythmic and richly colored — that lineage would be more apt, Schoenberg said. “I also feel a deep connection to Leonard Bernstein, Corigliano, Steve Reich and Thomas Newman,” he added. 

Schoenberg is also clearly drawn to French music: “I like the control and meticulous craft of Ravel and Henri Dutilleux, of Marc-André Dalbavie and Guillaume Connesson.”

Whatever Schoenberg’s influences, an invigorating quality characterizes his music, from orchestral works like “Finding Rothko” (2006) and “American Symphony” (2011) to “Picture Studies” (2012), inspired by Modest Mussorgsky’s famous “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and “Bounce” (2013), which was performed by the L.A. Philharmonic and local dance troupe BodyTraffic at the Hollywood Bowl in September.

“I want my music to reflect hope and beauty in the world, but it also needs to challenge both the audience and the orchestra,” Schoenberg said. “If you write what you think other people want to hear, you’re not going to win people over. Be honest and the power of your belief will win them over.”

For more information or to listen to Adam Schoenberg’s “Scatter,” visit this story at jewishjournal.com.