Symphony No. 2: Common Ground


Symphony No. 2: Common Ground


for orchestra (1993)

  • Premiere: 3 April 1993  / Calvin Simmons Theater, Oakland, California  / The Oakland East Bay Symphony / Michael Morgan
  • Instrumentation: 3(I,II=picc,III=alto).3(III=corA).3(III=bcl).2.dbn-4.3(I=cornet).3.1-timp.perc(3)-harp-pft(=cel)-strings 
  • Duration: 35'

Program Note

I. Fresh Ayre
II. Lyric Variations
III. Common Ground

The process of bringing Hagen's Symphony No. 2 to its successful completion in its final form required eight orchestras and seven conductors over the course of three years. It also resulted in three major composition prizes.

The opening movement is a rondo, marked Allegro frescamente, and is entitled Fresh Ayre. Based loosely on material from the first movement of Hagen's piano trio J'entends (1986), it was completed on 29 June 1987 at the MacDowell Colony, and first read by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as part of the American Symphony Orchestra League's New Music Project on 7 October 1987. Hagen simplified some of the orchestration and made other revisions while composing the second movement. The first public performance of the revised work by Michael Morgan and the Chicago Civic Orchestra took place on 17 November 1988. After the piece was awarded the ASCAP-Nissim Prize for Orchestral Music, Hagen then made more revisions to it prior to a performance by Michael Morgan and the Columbus Symphony on 5 September 1990 before finally folding it into the complete symphony.

The second movement, entitled Lyric Variations, combines chaconne and variation forms. Hagen writes, "each successive chord in the chaconne has a variation of the theme overlaid upon it." The pace of the chord changes gradually quickens through fourteen variations. The fifteenth variation contains all the chords of the previous variations. After, "turning the form inside out," writes Hagen, "there is a brief coda which combines the main themes of Fresh Ayre (in the low strings) with the theme of Lyric Variations (in the high strings). The work ends as it began — with a horn call." The second movement was premiered by JoAnn Falletta and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra on 5 August 1988. After the work received an ASCAP Grant to Young Composers Award, Hagen then made revisions to it, simplifying the orchestration and shortening several variations before himself conducting the revised work with the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia on 17 February 1989.

The finale, entitled Common Ground, was commissioned by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition and first performed by Zdenek Macal and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra on 16 April 1990. Hagen wrote the music while living in France during the fall and winter of 1989, "swept up in the idealisms, exhilarations, and fears that emerged as the Berlin Wall began to fall." The movement weaves the themes of the first two movements of the symphony together with a new theme, presented first in the lengthy harp solo with which the movement begins. Again, Hagen revised the work following the premiere, trimming orchestration and tightening the counterpoint. The New York Philharmonic gave the first performance of the revised version on 27 July 1990 under the baton of Lawrence Leighton Smith. Hagen responded to the performance by revising the movement still further. The resulting work received the Kennedy Center Friedheim Prize after a performance by the Mannes Orchestra, conducted by Michael Charry at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on 28 October 1990.

Hagen revised the entire work a final time during the summer of 1990. Satisfied that the symphony was at last finished, he offered the world premiere of the completed work to Michael Morgan, who subsequently introduced Symphony No. 2 with the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra on 3 April 1993 at the Calvin Simmons Theatre in Oakland, California.


...Big, exuberant, brashly scored and infectiously enjoyable.

— John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune, 11/22/88

....bright, lively, accessible, amusing and contemporary without being in any way difficult for the sophisticated listener. The Chicago Symphony might find it an ideal encore for their next tour.

— Robert C. Marsh, The Chicago Sun-Times, 11/21/88

The music beguiles by its instrumentation. It is chunky in its chordal tendencies, pixieish in intent.

— Barbara Zuck, The Columbus Dispatch, 10/6/90

....showed a firm compositional hand in its structural logic and conviction of utterance, a sensitive ear in the delicately transparent textures, and a sure heart in the soaring melodies it ultimately yielded.

— Nancy Miller, The Milwaukee Sentinal,8/6/88

[The last movement] begins with a meandering harp solo with just enough pointed dissonance to place it on the cusp between arpeggio and melody. In a string of solos for cello, oboe, and trumpet, material first heard in the harp mutates into a lush adagio melody that peaks in a statement by the violins. A lively, carnival-like theme enters, distantly at first, like an approaching parade. As this theme 'nears,' it becomes clear that it is in a competing key, and there is a long bi-tonal episode as it 'passes.' When the carnival tune fades away, gentle music based on the harp material brings the piece to a quiet, satisfying conclusion.

— Tom Strini, The Milwaukee Journal, 4/20/90

[The final movement] is a 15-minute orchestral adagio reminiscent in modest terms of those of late Mahler and Prokofiev.... Melodies were elegantly spun, episodes flowed coherently into one another, and textures remained clear even during employment of the entire orchestra.

— Nancy Raabe, The Milwaukee Sentinel, 4/20/90

[The finale], in its local premiere [by the New York Philharmonic], combined different thematic material to weave its multi-hued textures, which range from sparse and subtly- drawn to opulent and boldly glittering. Some melodies are dangerously beautiful - Hagen teeters on the edge of sugary, but never falls in.

— Susan Elliot,The New York Post, 7/30/90

[The finale's] melodic profusion and playful ebullience were a welcome tonic after the dourness of the [other] works. Hagen's piece opens and closes with an extended solo for the harp. [It has an] appealing palette of orchestral colors. Toward the middle, the piece turns into an extended Straussian circus....

— Lesley Valdes, The Philadelphia Inquirer,10/20/90

Yesterday's [concert at the Kennedy Center] unveiled the talent of a young American composer who need stand in no one's shadow. Common Ground [the finale of his Symphony No. 2] was the most diatonic of the four works on the program and without question the most accessible. His superbly uncommon orchestrations served the somewhat common material well.

— Mark Carrington, The Washington Post, 10/29/80

Common Ground (the finale to Hagen's Second Symphony but standing alone on this occasion) also came through in a favorable light. One heard the melodic influence of Dvorak and Brahms; but the orchestration had an original stamp, stemming from a method the composer describes as 'moving blocks of sound around the way a visual artist moves shapes around when composing space'.

— Charles McCardell, Musical America MagazineOctober, 1990

Michael Morgan premiered the complete Symphony No. 2

Michael Morgan premiered the complete Symphony No. 2

Leonard Slatkin premiered the first movement.

Leonard Slatkin premiered the first movement.

JoAnn Falletta premiered the second movement.

JoAnn Falletta premiered the second movement.

Zdenek Macal premiered the finale.

Zdenek Macal premiered the finale.

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