When the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Robert Spano take the stage this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the concert will consist of not only exclusively American works but works by Brooklyn-born composers.
Two of them have made their marks as essential symphonic Americana: Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which will feature Leon Bates as piano soloist. The third work is a significant ASO premiere: “Different River” by Alvin Singleton. Singleton was born in Brooklyn, studied music at Yale and then lived in Europe for 13 years. Then the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the late Robert Shaw, its music director, invited Singleton back across the pond to become the ASO’s composer-in-residence in 1985. When the residency ended in 1989, Singleton liked Atlanta so much that he decided to stay, and he has lived in Midtown ever since.
At 25 minutes, “Different River” is Singleton’s longest orchestral work to date. “The two largest pieces I’ve written were for the Atlanta Symphony,” he says. And he is quick to point out that the conductors who commissioned those works share the same initials and the same first name.
Singleton’s only other orchestral works that rival them in length also have Atlanta connections. His 1998 choral-orchestral piece “PraiseMaker,” written in 1998 for the Cincinnati May Festival’s 125th anniversary, was recorded by Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and released on a Telarc CD in 2010. And Singleton’s “Umoja — Each One of Us Counts” was written for the Cultural Olympiad of Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games.
More recently and on the smaller end of the length scale, Singleton’s four-minute fanfare “Miaka Kumi” was premiered by Spano and the ASO in February of last year.
“Atlanta has become my hometown for so many years now, I just get excited writing for the hometown band, as it were,” he says.
Singleton is not considered part of Spano’s cadre known as the Atlanta School of Composers. His presence in Atlanta and his international fame, both established long before Spano arrived, have earned him the moniker “the godfather” of Atlanta composers, a title Singleton says was bestowed upon him by former ArtsATL executive director and music critic Pierre Ruhe.
“I’m a part of the Atlanta scene, but another generation,” says Singleton. “I have established roots here, especially since I married an Atlantan, which a lot of people can’t say. [Native] Atlantans are hard to find these days.”
One of the interesting aspects of Singleton’s compositions is their modernist titles. He tends to add them after completing the music, because he believes a title should identify a work, not define what it is to become.
“You will never see a composition of mine called symphony or sonata, because there’s too much historical baggage to deal with,” he explains. “The moment you do, they’re going to compare you with Haydn and Beethoven. You choose something from the time in which you live.”
He believes that all classical composers start out studying and then imitating the masters. The trick is in finding your own voice. “In the beginning when you’re young and a student. you rely upon the perfection of Beethoven or Haydn and you imitate that,” he says. “But you reach a point where you mature along the way. You just keep learning, and your life experience tells you what to do in your scores.”
In the case of this new piece for the ASO, Singleton says he titled it in the process of writing, but that the process was pretty far along by then. “I was looking for a metaphor. A river flows constantly, into larger bodies of water. By and by, things fall in and things pass by. I also read a quote from a Greek philosopher who said, ‘You can never step into the same river twice.’ So I thought ‘Different River’ was an apt title.”