New Percussion Concerto at SF Symphony Takes On Climate Change

Los Angeles composer Adam Schoenberg was on his way to a meeting with the San Francisco Symphony to discuss a potential orchestral commission when he came across a magazine article about climate change, and immediately knew what his new musical work would be about.

“Despite the article’s main focus—the decade from 1979-1989 when we almost solved the global warming crisis—it still paints a grim future,” Schoenberg says of “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” published in The New York Times Magazine in August 2018. “Being a father of two young boys, I couldn't help but wonder if my children would be able to survive the long term effects of global warming.”

The composer’s new concerto for solo percussion and orchestra, titled Losing Earth after the magazine article, employs the apocalyptic and ancient sounds of drums, vibraphones and other whackable and scrapable instruments to convey the instability of our megastorm-wildfire-and-flood-plagued planet, as well as a sense of urgency around human actions going forward.

“Since drums are the oldest instrument known to mankind besides the human voice, it felt natural to create a narrative that captured the state of our ever-changing planet using percussion,” Schoenberg says.

Divided into three sections, the concerto stars Jacob Nissly, the symphony’s principal percussionist and a longtime friend of the composer, in the solo role. Nissly says he will be ranging around the Davies Symphony Hall auditorium playing an array of different instruments during the course of the unusual, 23-minute piece.

“The solo part will at times be the melody, at times the rhythmic motor, and at other times simply a supporting texture and effect,” Nissly says. The percussionist, who has played the solo part in a couple of concertos with the San Francisco Symphony's SoundBox series in recent years, is particularly excited about the middle section of Losing Earth. He says it stands in stark contrast to the piece's booming, cataclysmic opening.

“It showcases some of the aspects of percussion that don't always come to the forefront,” Nissly says. “Namely the soft, quiet, and sensitive capabilities.”

The Oct. 17-19 concerts are conducted by Cristian Macelaru. Also featured on the program is the symphonic poem D'un matin de printemps by the early 20th century French composer Lili Boulanger, and Maurice Ravel's 1922 orchestration of the 19th century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's beloved orchestral suite Pictures at an Exhibition.

—Chloe Veltman

October 17, 2019

Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco

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