Atlanta composer Richard Prior planted the seed for this week’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performances of his Symphony No. 3 way back in 2010. So he was a mite anxious while wondering if, four years later, it would become a casualty of the extended musician lockout.
Then, shortly after ASO management and musicians struck their bruising collective bargaining agreement, the Emory University Department of Music conducting chair and Emory Symphony Orchestra maestro received the good news. Even as music director Robert Spano reworked the delayed 70th anniversary season’s opening programs to accommodate substitute musicians filling in for ASO members off guesting with other American orchestras, Prior’s lyrical symphonic work indeed would be featured in concerts starting Thursday night.
“That was very heartening to say the least,” said Prior, as perky as the steaming brew he was sipping one morning last weekend at a coffee shop near his Decatur home, no matter that he faced a weeklong blur of rehearsals and performances with the ASO in addition to the two Emory ensembles he conducts.
The British-born Prior, 48, has some 70 works to his credit, but having a full symphony performed by an orchestra as prominent as Atlanta’s lines up as one of the biggest and most prestigious developments of his accomplished career.
Adding to the luster is that Spano, a renowned champion of contemporary composition who founded the Atlanta School of Composers to foster even more music of our time, not only selected it for the anniversary season but is conducting it. Prior’s father, George, is traveling from Suffolk to bear witness.
As a precursor to Symphony No. 3, the ASO commissioned Prior’s “… Of Shadow and Light … (Incantations for Orchestra),” a work selected as a 2013 classical highlight by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s critic. And Prior further cemented the bond between himself and the orchestra by conducting two well-received benefit programs by the locked-out musicians this fall.
“Richard wrote us a fantastic piece last season, and, as with many of our family of composers, we wanted to follow up this season with more of his music,” Spano said in an email to the AJC. “His music is so powerful, dramatic and colorful, that it has immediate impact. But living with it over time, it grows deeper and richer.”
For the world premiere of Symphony No. 3 in 2011, Prior himself conducted the Emory Symphony Orchestra, a student ensemble, and it has since been performed by the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra and Egypt’s Cairo National Symphony Orchestra.
An Emory artist in residence from 2010 to 2012, Spano had not heard any of those concerts when he sat down with Prior to listen to a recording, but he had heard plenty about it. Because of the number of ASO musicians who are Emory Department of Music artist affiliates, and their many students who played its world premiere, the composer had many “great ambassadors” bending Spano’s ear.
That chorus was so enthusiastic that the ASO music director even joked about all the lobbying. “Your advance press has been noted,” he told the composer with a smile when he was about to cue up the recording.
Fortunately for Prior, the smile remained as the maestro drank in the music. “He listened very enthusiastically as he turned the pages,” Prior recalled. “It was clear to me that he’d made up his mind on the spot — we were going to do something together.”
But Spano cautioned Prior that first he would have to wait for an ASO planning meeting two months later. “Like all composers, you’re on sort of tenterhooks at that point, waiting for that call,” Prior said.
When it came, Spano toyed a tad with him. “I know you’re going to be disappointed …” he started out, before revealing that the ASO wanted to commission a shorter world premiere for 2013-14 before proceeding to the full-length Symphony No. 3 this season.
“Of course, I’m thinking, ‘What is there to be disappointed about in this scenario?’” Prior recounted in his effortlessly wry Brit way.
By the composer’s design, “… Of Shadow and Light” and Symphony No. 3 are “close cousins,” sharing a musical language and colors. But the composer calls last season’s 16-minute premiere the novella to this weekend’s 39-minute novel, which he considers his most mature work.
Prior believes Symphony No. 3 is a personal benchmark because it began as “pure music,” without a “ground plan” in terms of story. Yet as the work evolved, he said he was surprised at some of the imagery that he poured onto paper without the composer even turning to his usual go-to tool, the keyboard.
At some point, he realized there was a narrative building in those mounting pages of musical notes, a very personal one.
“What I found myself (creating) in the slow movement was a sort of letting go and a goodbye to my grandmother, who played an incredibly significant role in my upbringing.”
Doreen Lee lived close by in Kent when Richard was a lad and “was always there” as his life and musical interests developed: first singing in the cathedral choir, then learning piano and cello and, finally, taking interest in composition as a university student. He pictures how youthful and sprightly his “Nan” was and said he wasn’t prepared for her death at 78 in 2004, the year he and his wife, Holloway Sparks, moved to Atlanta.
“She never got to see her great-grandchildren, because they were born after she died, and there were all kinds of things that she didn’t get to see or be part of, and that was really kind of tragic,” said Prior, his normal ebullience momentarily going into eclipse. “It’s something I still wrestle with in some ways.”
Richard spent countless weekends with his Nan when he was roughly in the age range of his sons, Anderson, 9 (a violin and piano student), and Christopher, 5 (cello). A favorite diversion was to watch old black-and-white movies on TV, a number of them starring Humphrey Bogart, some featuring Bernard Herrmann’s descriptive scores.
Prior said those impressed a cinematic style on him as a composer, especially the way emotions or characters are introduced and then gain resonance as his evocative work returns to and expands upon the initial themes.
His Nan mainly appears in Symphony No. 3’s slower middle movement, which he named “threnody” — suggesting a song of lament at a funeral. Toward the movement’s end, the anguish of loss and the grasping of one’s own mortality are emphasized by the pounding of kettledrums.
But bright tempos return in the “very visceral and energetic” third and final movement.
“So you definitely get the sense that you’ve traveled through these dark landscapes and there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Prior said.
“Hopefully,” he added, his mirthfulness returning, “it’s not the train coming toward you.”
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: Richard Prior’s Symphony No. 3
Also on the revised program: Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie (featuring principal clarinet Laura Ardan), Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. 8 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $24-$99. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
LISTEN TO AUDIO
To hear excerpts from Richard Prior’s Symphony No. 3, and other Prior works, go to richardprior.org/media-2.