Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Cliff Colnot, cond., Orchestra Hall, Chicago (January 1997)
New York Youth Symphony, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, cond., Carnegie Hall, New York (March, 1994)
Totem was composed during the summer of 1993 on a commission from the New York Youth Symphony through its First Music 10 competition. The work is in movement, divided into three sections, with a total duration of about ten minutes. The title refers to the dark, ritualistic nature of the music, very loosely inspired by Jackson Pollock's 1947 painting, Full Fathom Five.
The work opens quietly, solo winds presenting a plaintive melody over a subtly shifting, coloristic cushion of winds, strings and percussion. Based on an alternating minor/major third figure, this line continually spins out of itself and supplies much of the melodic and harmonic material used throughout the entire work. Three solo strings enventually take over the line, expanding it over a gentle, muted brass accompaniment, always surrounded by the almost impressionistic background.
With a slight increase in tempo, the solo winds return, varying the melody even further in both contour and instrumentation. Underneath the winds, the strings provide a steady, eighth-note accompaniment which slowly thickens the texture and, through a long cresendo, leads to the first climax of the piece.
As this climax fades, the tempo changes and the violins introduce a running sixteenth-note figure which drives much of the second (and longest) section. This music climbs through the orchestra until the empasis abruptly shits register, and the lower strings begin a long, snake-like rise back to the upper reaches. Complex, imitative brass fanfares announce faster tempi and more dramatic gestures until the work reaches its final, thunderous climax.
The opening music returns in the third, coda-like section, the original motive now fragmented between solo viola, alto flute and English horn over a quiet background of percussion, harp and celesta. The work ends much like it began, two flutes fading into silence.
Totem is scored for large orchestra (triple winds, full brass, timpani and three percussionists, harp, piano/celesta and strings) and was premiered by the New York Youth Symphony, Miquel Harth-Bedoya conducting, on May 22, 1994, at Carnegie Hall.
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