In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to inform my readers that I have known Robert W. Butts for many years, in a professional relationship that has evolved into one of friendship and great respect. I find it hard to determine how much that fact has influenced my response to his Symphony No. 1, which is reflected in this review.
The symphony was a focal point of a concert presented by the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey on April 27, at the Dolan Concert Hall, College of St. Elizabeth, in Madison. Butts conducted the orchestra, sharing composition honors with a pair of giants: Bizet, whose Entr’acte for Act 4 of the opera, Carmen, opened the program; and Beethoven.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, The Emperor, was the centerpiece of the first half of the program. It featured Paul Ziegler as soloist. It took a lot of courage for Butts to let Beethoven go first, so to speak. The Emperor is one of the most popular and powerful works in the Western musical canon, and Ziegler is an outstanding interpreter of Beethoven’s work.
Ziegler’s great gift is a keen insight into the music’s emotional foundations. He seems to plumb the depths of the composer’s psyche as it is revealed in the music—virtuosic and sensitive, not given to displays of high-speed and meaningless flash favored by some soloists. With Ziegler, we get to know Beethoven.
That insight Ziegler’s performance gave us into Beethoven was especially important on Sunday, because it made clear that good music is a reflection of the character, the personality, indeed the soul of the composer. And thus the audience, many if not most already familiar with Robert Butts, the man, was prepared to hear his music.
As he has said frequently, and in particular in program notes written for the concert, he has been composing most of his life—songs, suites and even opera. But the idea of a symphony, he admits, was overwhelming.
Though he may have been wracked with doubt as to his ability to pull it all together, the result makes it clear that the time for this work had come. It is a symphony that reflects the man.
The first movement, lento/allegro, begins with a theme introduced by a solo horn, a plaintive call for attention, from which a number of themes evolve. The exploration of themes takes the path of an emotional odyssey, slow to fast, thoughtful to exultant.
In the second movement, scherzo, a playfulness emerges. Butts in his program notes says that he was inspired by an idea from Mozart, to employ a folk-dance theme. There is a fresh and youthful quality in it.
The third, traditionally slow, movement, adagio, does not have a clear end and moves into the fourth, allegro, in a way Butts describes as “almost violently.” The final movement includes an absolutely beautiful fugue.
Another unique feature of this work is that includes vocalise, the use of the human voice as an instrument in the orchestra. Two wonderful sopranos, Karole Lewis and Justyna Giermola, did the honors, singing on a single syllable (no words), individually, in unison and in harmony.
The names given to symphonic works come from a variety of sources: who inspired them, who commissioned them, even where they were first performed. And these names were often not designated by the composers. May I suggest, then, that this wonderful composition be identified as “The Joshua Symphony,” in honor of the late Joshua Plaut? It was in memory of this young man that the symphony was commissioned by his parents, Anne and Jon Plaut, family and friends.