“A program that is not different for different’s sake, but is effective”:Sam Green’s senior composition recital

Senior Samuel Green plays with junior Casey Kollman, soprano, on his own piece from the Kaddish, Cantata, op.76. Photo by Rongyan Song.

Senior Sam Green’s composition recital in the Memorial Chapel on Sunday, May 1, began without any performers on stage. Green composed the first piece on the program, “Tornado Sirens in the Dark,” for fixed media, meaning that it incorporated a variety of sound effects and was specifically intended to be heard from a recording rather than performed live.

As the lights dimmed, the piece opened with a “shh” sound, like the strong winds of the titular tornado, which continued throughout the piece in several iterations. They reverberated in the expansive space of the chapel, so that the audience became enveloped by the atmosphere. Sirens pierced the sound of the wind, their quality resembling train whistles that grew closer and more distant from us and which ranged in harmonization from sparse to full and dissonant.

Next came two dance movements from Green’s Suite for Solo Cello, op. 55, a courante and a sarabande, performed by sophomore Sophia Eckdale-Dudley. The courante was mostly of a determined and self-confident nature, though there were also sections that seemed exasperated and even forlorn. Because of its unpredictability, this piece kept the audience in suspense at every moment.

Before the recital, I got a chance to speak with Green about his compositional style and his process of working with other musicians to perform his works. He told me that he likes to give performers a fair amount of control over the music and that he values spontaneity, wanting to ensure that performers get to experiment in how they play the music. I thought the courante was especially effective at capturing this sense of freedom that Green mentioned.

Senior Samuel Green plays with junior Casey Kollman, soprano, on his own piece from the Kaddish, Cantata, op.76. Photo by Rongyan Song.

The sarabande began with simple ascending and descending lines and had a gentler character overall. Abrupt shifts between the higher and lower registers of the cello emphasized the distance between different parts of the melody and created a sense of separation that gave a haunting effect.

After the cello suite, senior flutist Isabella Cisneros performed a selection from Green’s Music for Where I Come From, op. 64, titled “The Connecticut at Essex.” Essex is a town in Connecticut alongside which the Connecticut River flows, and it was the site of a devastating raid by British forces during the war of 1812. The patriotic air of the piece alludes to this history.

The flute began with a percussive rhythm, mimicking a drum. When the more conventional flute line entered and began to alternate with the percussive sections, the effect was of fife and drum music played as soldiers marched into battle. Green incorporated quotes from “Yankee Doodle” into the piece that further cemented its message.

Following this, Green made his first appearance on stage, taking his place at the piano to perform From the Kaddish, Cantata, op. 76 with junior soprano vocalist Casey Kollman. The Kaddish is a Jewish prayer that praises God and is recited in memory of the dead. In the passage of text that Green set, the speaker asks God to give humans peace.

The vocal line was unmistakably sincere. Through much of the piece, it lamented over a flowing piano part or repeating chords in the middle of the instrument’s range.

This composition featured two of my favorite artistic decisions, which I think made it an especially powerful and effective display of emotion. The first was that in some places, the usual beauty of Kollman’s voice became raw, betraying its underlying grief. The other was that, leading up to Kollman crying out “Amen,” the piano part got increasingly thunderous, giving force to the words and emphasizing their desperation.

Before the final piece, Sonata MMXX no. 6, Green thanked his family, friends and teachers for their support, and went on to give some context about the sonata. In particular, he mentioned his consideration of other sixth symphonies, quartets and piano sonatas by composers such as Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich that “all share a dark and tragic mood.”

Senior Mikayla Frank-Martin joined Green on stage to serve as the sonata’s narrator, opening the piece with the unaccompanied spoken line, “I cannot predict in what ways the coronavirus will affect me, my family or the wider community.” The text of the sonata was written by Green’s grandmother, Judith Zorfass, in the early days of the pandemic.

The first of the sonata’s three movements, marked Allegro appassionata e agitato, was an emotional rollercoaster. At one point it featured several march-like motifs; some resembled a battle march, while others were more funereal. Later, left-hand chords crashed in the lower range of the piano as the right hand rang out in alarm. This movement ended with a glissando from top to bottom of the piano’s range, ending in a pounded-out chord.

The second movement began with, “I cannot predict how effective the measures enacted by all levels of government will be in containing the virus,” and the piano quoted the opening theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, proceeding to a variation on this theme that also incorporated the melody of “Ode to Joy,” exploring the coexistence of sharply conflicting emotions.

The movement transitioned into a discordant rendition of “The Blue Danube” which was stamped out by more dissonant chords before returning to the previous combination of Beethoven’s fifth and “Ode to Joy,” this time played by only the index finger of each hand.

The final movement is where most of the text appeared. The spoken text became intertwined with the piano, expressing additional uncertainties that were all too relatable.

Frank-Martin spoke the words “I can only hope for the best” twice, the first time met by thrashing protest in the piano, and the second time received more calmly, before both the text and the piano became hopeful, with references to springtime and togetherness. Perhaps tempering this optimism with realism, the piece resumed its former dissonance, concluding on a single note from the piano.

In describing his compositional style and intentions, Green told me that he aligns himself with the Classical traditions of musical craftmanship and music for entertainment. Mentioning Mozart and Haydn, among others, he told me that “the past has always had a huge impact” on him. While basing his style on those of his predecessors, Green also takes new approaches to composition and performance, citing Leonard Bernstein as a source of inspiration in his quest to create “a program that is not different for different’s sake, but is effective.”

Green explained that in his abstract music, use of old forms serves a grounding purpose, while the incorporation of unexpected or unconventional techniques, such as playing inside the piano, touching the strings rather than the keys in Sonata MMXX or having the flute imitate drums in “The Connecticut at Essex” serves an expressive purpose, rather than being included just for the sake of including such a technique.

If you missed this performance, you will be glad to know that you have one final opportunity to hear Green’s music before his graduation. His arrangement of the finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, K. 551 for piano four hands will be performed during this term’s keyboard department recital on May 31 at 9 p.m. in the Memorial Chapel.