Samuel Carl Adams’s Chamber Concerto

Donato Cabrera
Jul 6 · 3 min read

In choosing the repertoire for this concert, one of my goals was to find repertoire and, perhaps, a soloist that had a real connection to Reno. As luck would have it, I remember hearing that the composer, Samuel Carl Adams, had married a violinist who had grown up in Reno and was a recent addition to the San Francisco Symphony violin section. It became a fait accompli in discovering that Samuel had recently written a chamber concerto for violin and ensemble.

As Adams writes in the program notes for the premiere of his Chamber Concerto in May 2018, he finds the idea of a traditional concerto, “a bit suspect.” He goes on to say, “I am not particularly drawn to lopsided musical hierarchies, and the ‘hero’ narrative found in the standard nineteenth- and twentieth-century romantic warhorses doesn’t seem altogether relevant in the twenty-first century.”

Fair enough. In this statement, we find an artist creating within a structure in which he is consciously working in opposition. Picasso, James Joyce, and Nijinsky quickly come to mind as artists who not only thrived creating in a contrarian manner, but led their respective artforms into entirely new directions.

However, what is revealed to us in his Chamber Concerto for Violin and Ensemble, and perhaps what was revealed to Adams as he composed this piece, are the aesthetic principles of the compositional form of the concerto grosso, from which the concerto was born, and a form of composition that was found from the era of Bach and Handel — the Baroque

What is a concerto grosso? It literally means big concerto. There were two types, the concerto da chiesa (church concerto), which had a form that alternated between slow and fast movements, and a concerto da camera (chamber concerto), which was a collection of movements that often started with a prelude, and which was then followed by movements that were based on popular dance forms. A concerto grosso also meant that there were usually a very small group of maybe three or four instrumentalists, that would play in dialogue with a larger group, often surrounding them. You can clearly see how this works with this fantastic performance of Händel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, №6.

Adams chooses, obviously, the chamber concerto format, but with a twist. As he writes, “The result is a contemporary take on old ideas, a concerto that attempts to translate baroque formal devices into psychological archetypes, finding their meaning in the twenty-first century.” While Adams keeps the violin as a ‘solo’ voice, it is used more as a spark or, as he puts it, a “waking voice” and the ensemble is its “collective unconscious.”

For example, the first movement, which is a prelude, doesn’t begin with the typical grand orchestral introduction that we are accustomed to, but with the solo violin gently and quietly playing the open strings of the instrument. The rest of the ensemble slowly joins in, following the lead of and responding to the solo voice which creates a tapestry of sound that is, indeed, like layers of emotion and feeling, rather than the typical call and response that a concerto employs.

The Chamber Concerto is first and foremost an exploration of expression, deconstructing musical terms to their essence in order to communicate feeling and emotion, rather than form and function.

Donato Cabrera

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