Ever since Beethoven added a chorus to his Ninth Symphony in 1824, the symphony as a musical form has been in flux. Pre-Beethoven, a symphony that did not follow a fast-slow-minuet-finale form would likely raise the eyebrows, if not the rancor, of the conservative nobility that composed the majority of the audiences. In the mid-1800’s, Berlioz led the way to the programmatic symphony culminating with Mahler who felt that “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” The twentieth century saw the symphony blossom until around 1950-1960 when the form began to take a back seat to the experimental forms of the avant garde movement. Yet for some contemporary composers, the symphony– in whatever form it may be realized– still inspires. Jeffrey Leiser, experienced producer, screenwriter, and composer of The Summit: A Symphony in Four Movements, found the four movement symphony the perfect canvas to create “..something broader in terms of compositional expression.”
The symphony has also been a daunting challenge for many composers throughout history. Brahms, for example, took fifteen years to tackle his first, and many composers never tried or stopped at just one, their powers and inspiration exhausted. Every generation of composers has grappled with this most noble of musical forms; giving a work the title of “symphony” leads to the expectation of something on a grand and serious scale. Leiser can sympathize with Herr Brahms; the gestation of his symphony was a titanic struggle. In his program notes, Leiser confesses that “..more than once I fell flat on my face, and I seriously considered abandoning the project.” Perseverance, discipline, dedicated supporters, and a vision of what he wanted to create kept him on track, and with the able assistance of Andrés Soto and Mitchell McCarthy as orchestrators/arrangers, The Summit was completed and recorded in 2015 by the forces on this CD on Discovery Music & Vision. The work does not seem to have had a live premiere as of this writing.
A journey as well as a contemplation of infinity are the dual inspirations for the work according to the composer. The Summit is a work of moments: documenting, photographing, and filming whatever journey or endeavor the listener conjures in their imagination. And some fine moments it does have: the quiet, questioning opening bars; soaring melodies; tender violin solos; brassy climaxes; bold and colorful writing for percussion; and the touching use of the recorder in the introductory bars of the final movement. Chock full of hummable, catchy melodies and major chords, not a single note of the symphony will offend anyone’s ears. However, Leiser relies a bit heavily on these all-too-conventional gestures, which combined with often simple repetition of themes without significant development, lends a certain sameness to it all. Attention to the structure, connection of themes and motifs, and most of all, the contrast between movements, is what makes a “symphony” more than just a collection of disparate compositions. Four movements and 48 minutes– no matter how richly-scored and melodic– do not necessarily a symphony make. Therefore, thinking of The Summit as a suite of expressive tone poems may, for some, be a richer, more satisfying listening experience.
The unnamed and largely un-credited “pick-up” orchestra, hand-picked by the composer to perform and record The Summit, is top notch (some fabulous horn and woodwind work, bravo!) and really sounds like they are having fun. Leiser put his faith in conductor Harrison Hollingsworth to realize his vision, and he certainly seemed to do just that. Recording engineer Myles Rodenhouse and his team produced a recording of remarkable clarity and presence; the whole production from Discovery Music & Vision, including notes and packaging, is first rate.
I so wanted to cheer a new symphony in the grand symphonic tradition, showing that the form still has relevance in the 21st century. You know those colorful and swirling movie previews that end with a critic’s quote “This is the Feel Good Movie of the Year!!” splashed across the screen? That is The Summit: a feel good musical experience with touches of drama, lots of action, and a happy ending. I have a feeling Jeffrey Leiser has a more mature Symphony No. 2 in his future. It just might be the one to inspire other contemporary composers to carry the glorious tradition of the symphony forward to a new generation of enthusiasts.