Odds are you’ve never heard a percussion concerto. And the rarity of such pieces is just one of many reasons that Jacob (Jake) Nissly and Adam Schoenberg are so excited about Losing Earth, a world premiere and San Francisco Symphony commission that can be heard on October 17–19 at Davies Symphony Hall.
Jake (the Symphony’s Principal Percussion) and Adam (an acclaimed, Emmy-winning and Grammy-nominated composer) have known each other since their student days at the Juilliard School. It wasn’t a smooth first meeting. Adam had written a piece that called for unusual percussion “instruments,” including a couple of oxygen tanks. Setting up all that hardware delayed the rehearsal, at the end of which Jake had some choice words for Adam. “I wasn’t very friendly about it at first, and I ended up apologizing.” Adam: “My takeaway is, you have to write what you hear in your head, but you also have to think about the musician who’s going to be playing your music.” Realizing they had a lot in common musically, the two quickly became friends.
After Juilliard, they both found themselves in Miami. As Jake was working on his auditions for orchestra jobs, Adam developed an affinity for percussion. Their paths kept crossing as they advanced in their careers, deepening their musical connection even further. Finally, a couple of years ago, Michael Tilson Thomas and the Symphony’s artistic leadership team eagerly accepted Jake’s idea of commissioning a percussion concerto.
“Jake texted me about it in early 2018, asking if I was interested, and of course I said ‘Yes,’” Adam says. “In August of that year, I flew to San Francisco to see Jake and talk about it some more. On the flight over, I read a very long article about climate change in The New York Times Magazine: ‘Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.’ It’s such a prevalent topic right now. And having two young sons in LA, it’s alarming to think about the city getting hotter and hotter, and the Pacific Ocean warming up. All this fed into my ideas about the concerto, since percussion traces back to the beginning of time.”
Just how do a composer and percussionist in two different cities work on a concerto together?
“This is by far the most collaborative concerto I’ve written to date. He’s very involved,” notes Adam. Jake says “As we speak I’m sitting here improvising over and over the opening of his piece, recording myself, sending him ideas I like, having him send feedback. This is modern-day, Dropbox composing! But he’s definitely written the structure of the piece; I’m not telling him anything about how it should go.”
And what does Losing Earth sound like? While both halves of the partnership want to avoid spoilers (Hint: this is one concert you don’t want to be late for!), Jake does say, “I like the fact that Adam’s music is very tonal; you could leave Davies Symphony Hall humming! The music makes melodic sense; it’s not a kitchen-sink concerto where I run around and hit every instrument just a couple of times.” Jake notes tantalizingly that the piece opens with a nod to his deep involvement in drum corps as a teenager. “It’s a rockin’ first movement!”
Are they looking forward to the world premiere in Davies Symphony Hall?
Jake says, “The whole thing is a little surreal. I’ve always dreamed of being able to do something like this. I’m really fortunate to be able to work with someone like Adam, who’s in the prime of his career.”
While Jake is used to playing highly exposed parts with the Symphony (“I feel no anxiety over being front and center”), Adam confesses, “I will be beyond nervous” on opening night. “I always am. Even though I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of world premieres, I never take it for granted. It is the most exhilarating feeling. After working months and months alone in your room, suddenly your composition goes out into the world!”
Steve Holt is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. This article first appeared in the program books of the San Francisco Symphony, and is used with permission.