James Matheson



































































































































































































































































"This same precision boosted Matheson’s 24-minute three-movement Violin Concerto, as surely did Salonen’s recent experience as a composer of his own formidable and Grawemeyer Award-winning violin concerto. Unlike many younger composers who have a basic idea and then try to orchestrate it, the Cornell graduate school-trained Matheson writes in full orchestral 3-D. Waves of tonal sounds moved across the stage, and sections had individual voices and even voices within the sections."

—Andrew Patner, The Chicago Sun-Times, December 17, 2011

"Matheson's Violin Concerto is a supercharged showpiece for virtuoso violinist and orchestra that connects with the listener on a visceral as well as intellectual level. It keeps the soloist extremely busy as he negotiates a maze of vivid, colorful orchestral effects that ultimately are the most interesting aspect of the piece. While neo-romantic in overall flavor, Matheson is original enough to shun the feel-good bromides that constitute so much of today's 'new' classical music."

—John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune, December 16, 2011

"The concert opened not with a simple warm-up overture, but with the world premiere of James Matheson’s Violin Concerto. The glassy solo violin is often playing rapid-fire notes in the instrument’s upper register with one inch of bow. Unpredictable bursts from the orchestra and undulating strings add a unique texture. Following the expansive first movement, the chaconne emerges slowly over sparse writing, elongated notes replacing the earlier flurry. A jolt of brass and percussion start the dance-like third movement, an entirely percussive section with snapping pizzicato from the strings and a toe-tapping finish. Conveying Matheson’s artistic influences, Dodge’s performance was a technical marvel, and the orchestra gave their fellow fiddler their complete support."

  —Elliot Mandel,

 Chicago Classical Music,

December 16, 2011

"This program featured the world premiere of James Matheson’s Violin Concerto, a scintillating virtuoso work that enjoyed the fleet-fingered advocacy of soloist Baird Dodge. Matheson’s three-movement concerto initially hurls the violin forward in an understated perpetual motion, then in the finale shoots off festoons of technical fireworks set against some wild rhythms in the basses. A gracefully formed slow movement affords a time-out in the excitement.

"Matheson, a native Iowan, writes for the orchestra with imagination and confidence, creating especially fresh and inviting effects with brightly percolating woodwinds in the opening movement. The solo violin writing strongly recalls the piquant language of Prokofiev, though with added spice in the harmonic blending with the orchestra. At times, the ear strained to hear the soloist through Matheson’s richly spun orchestral fabric. But the zesty concerto got a zealous reception from an audience that showered its appreciation on the 41-year-old composer."

—Lawrence B. Johnson,

Chicago on the Aisle

December 17, 2011

Feature Article: "Composer's friendship with CSO principal yields special gift, a violin concerto"

"How many composers are fortunate enough to have a brand-new work performed by two major soloists with two major orchestras under two major conductors, only a few months apart?

"That is the happy situation in which James Matheson finds himself."

  —John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune, December 13, 2011

[full article]

"Joined by clarinetist Garrick Zoeter, the group launched into The Anatomy of Melancholy by James Matheson, which they premiered two days ago in Chicago. The piece, written for the group, had a surprisingly beautiful and eerie feel. The composer created a delightful effect by having the violin or cello pluck the same notes at the same time as Huebner hit the keys—creating an almost bell-like sound. Later in the piece, the four players bounced a note back and forth and then finished in a frenzy."

  —Laura Stevens, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 11, 2008

"I was most engaged by Matheson's Falling, a piano trio eloquently played by pianist Julie Steinberg, violinist Roy Malan and cellist Leighton Fong. Matheson's notes identify this as a variation set without a "theme per se." The model, in other words, is closer to the Baroque passacaglia—variations based on a repeated bass line or sequence of harmonies—than to the traditional melodic transformations.

"Matheson sets the stage crisply, with a sequence of lustrous, surprising piano chords marching slowly two by two, like animals into the ark. Then he proceeds to adorn the sequence —with a walking bass in the piano, with floral sprays of triplets from the piano and violin and finally with a gentle lullaby.

"The effect is amiable and often sumptuous, and there's a touching innocence to Matheson's writing."

—Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, March 1, 2007

"Matheson's Violin Concerto opened with the violin solo in the low stratosphere playing a motorhythmic figure with a lot of 4ths and 5ths. The orchestra brought out certain of the frenetic stream of notes, starting in the percussion, then others, then . . . WHAM. Full orchestra hit. Exclamation point. And sustain, then decay.

"What followed was a meandering journey—the 1st movement was titled Caprice—that always seemed to come back to this figure."

—Evan Kuchar, chicagonow.com, December 16, 2011

"James Matheson’s Pound opens with a soft repeated note that grows like a beast, forming a kind of rhythmic spine, with whorls of accented notes that dance around it in a concept that only grows more chilling in its relentlessness. Eric Huebner, who was so expert in the Ligeti Piano Concerto last season, seemed doggedly immersed in the pummeling rhythmic patterns that only grow more and more fiendish."

—Bruce Hodges, MusicWeb's "Seen and Heard International," October 2006

"First on the program was James Matheson's Colonnade, inspired by the enormous white marble columns of the New York State Education Building. Ingeniously looking past (or through) the immensity of the building's facade, Matheson delivered an iridescent, almost wispy composition that depicted many layers of light and shadow."

—Joseph Dalton, American Record Guide, July - August, 2003

"James Matheson's Buzz made the most of the instrumentation, dividing the ensemble interestingly, with the clarinet and violin combining in a mercurial counterbalance to the weightier cello and piano writing. It is accessible and eclectic."

—Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, January 17, 2004

"Antares is a lively bunch; a lovable James Matheson trifle called Buzz brought things to life on both sides of the stage."

—Alan Rich, The LA Weekly, December 19-25, 2003

"So, too, was Buzz an infectious work for violin, clarinet, cello and piano by James Matheson. It was an amped-up tribute to Rimsky-Korsakov's The Flight of the Bumble Bee, and its first few notes themselves were turned into a persistent buzzing bee."

—Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 30, 2007

"The music of James Matheson, born in 1970 and living in New York, is happily free of the heavy academic orthodoxy that stifled serious music during the long decades when Webernian serialism was the key to respectability (although not, of course, to popularity). For Matheson, tonality is always a possibility; but it is a matter of feeling, not of architecture, and it can be used or not used, depending on the momentary expressive needs of the music. Dissonance is not dictated by any abstract principle, but is employed for emotional expression, as is—with equal freedom—consonance. Form is guided by intuition, not by any externally imposed system; nevertheless, the composer's focus on a central motivic or textural idea, imaginatively yet lucidly varied, insures that the listener can sense the work's unity. Matheson loves the play of instrumental timbres, but they are always in the service of a human reality that the music is giving voice to.

"Thus, in the six-and-a-half minutes of Buzz, the obsessive flutterings and scurryings over brooding, slow-moving harmonies evoked in a phantasmagoric way the immediate energies and underlying sadness of life, the "buzz" of activity struggling to overcome the inexorable laws of existence, but unable to silence them. (Both the idea and the form the composer gives it may show the influence of Ives's The Unanswered Question.)

"The same kinds of serious concerns, and the same inventiveness in finding musical means to embody them, dominate other Matheson works. His stunning River, River, River, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony, magically communicates the essence of an exquisite little symbolist poem by T.S. Eliot about a Virginia river on a hot summer day, the scarcely perceptible movement of the water suggesting the flow of time suspended in a moment of timeless consciousness. The piano trio Falling is a set of variations on a descending sequence, with once again a variously agitated and somber emotional atmosphere: the fevered assertiveness of activity (including the scurrying gestures that permeate Buzz) pitted against inevitable decline and degeneration.

"The hypnotic power of this music arises from a moment-to-moment drama that fascinates the mind and creates its own unpredictable structure. This is what one experiences in Matheson's incredibly beautiful Gliss, an orchestral work, with its gradual evolution of basic melodic shapes within gorgeous clouds of shifting timbres; in Sleep, a concerto for violin and chamber orchestra, with its rich harmonies and textures and its profound expressiveness; and in Spin, a compact string quartet in which texture and gesture are the generative elements, but where there is still a pervasive sense of singing melody and evocative harmony. These works, and others, are available for listening—along with the composer's extensive and eloquent program notes—on Matheson's website. I urge you to take advantage of it, if you want to become acquainted with a truly impressive contemporary composer."

—Jonathan Saville, San Diego Reader, June 5, 2003

"True South demands an astonishing array of orchestral effects.

"In True South, Matheson's music ranged from atmospheric layers of sound, to moments of almost operatic power. Especially effective was his unusual combinations of instruments. Throughout the piece the listener was exposed to a kaleidoscope of musical sections, alternating from one sound-stage to another.

"Matheson is certainly an accomplished composer who is worthy of attention and support. In True South, one hears the promise of Matheson’s future as a major composer – for a great film score, an opera, or other works that in time and funding may yet grace the concert and theater stage."

—Ahdda Shur, LA Classical Music Examiner, Oct. 8, 2012

"Matheson’s String Quartet is an impressive piece of work. Thirty-two minutes long, it is brimming with ideas; the richness of their number is palpable. It is also composed in an accessible style, but not a dumbed-down one. The composer’s intention of accessibility is nicely summed up by the movement titles, which Matheson (he was in attendance) told us he came up with just that day. They are: “All leap and no faith”; “Y ‘heart’ X”; and “Pure chocolate energy.” This isn’t Pierre Boulez.

"Matheson, who recently composed a violin concerto for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, obviously has a talent for writing for strings. The String Quartet is, perhaps first and foremost, beautifully orchestrated, the combination of instruments used to create one wondrous color after another. Motor rhythms and repeated patterns juice forward progress; these ideas move through tonal progressions, reaching plateaus of more static material (at least in the first two movements) – meditative, starry-skied, rapt. The quick finale is a syncopated romp.

"The St. Lawrence seemed to play it for all its worth.


—Timothy Mangan, Orange County Register, February 20, 2014

"The most absorbing was James Matheson's Bagatelle. The piece alternated material from the final movement of the Eroica with spectral and torrential washes of sound—think Franz Liszt playing Beethoven on hallucinogens."

—John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune, September 18, 2012

"Mr. Gilbert, describing James Matheson’s True South during a pre-concert interview with the WNYC radio host John Schaefer, used the word “cinematic,” a term well suited to a work inspired by Werner Herzog’s Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World. Mr. Matheson’s lively 20-minute sequence of ear-catching timbres and evocative passages was bracketed by episodes of surging energy and buoyant fanfares."

—Steve Smith, The New York Times, December 20, 2010

"The sound-world of True South is truly remarkable, with deeply reverberant, hard-charging strings set against percussion and vivid, dancing melodic figures from the woodwinds. Matheson’s work calls for, and indeed received, some wonderful sonorities. The LA Chamber Orchestra plays with the depth of an ensemble twice its size and the strings especially can dig in in a way that is almost gasp-inducing."

—J. Anthony Macalister, Note x Note, Oct. 7, 2012

"True South is full of music that is intricate yet transparent, and features some inspired, prismatically colorful orchestration of which Ravel would have been proud:  among the many notable moments is a soaring solo for trumpet and the absolute genius use of a Caribbean steel drum; the strings often take a supporting role, providing harmonic texture and rhythmic propulsion.  It is music that, like the South Pole, can be harsh and bleak one moment, and energetic and inspiring the next.  More importantly, it is music that has a distinct personality that is not easily pigeon-holed into any particular classification.  Mr. Matheson has already received numerous prominent commissions and awards.  Let’s hope that his compositional star burns ever bright, and that we continue to  have the pleasure to hear more major works from him."

—All is Yar

"Matheson's Songs of Desire, Love and Loss, which Stucky conducted, illustrates and dramatizes seven poems by Alan Dugan. Matheson tends to build to a punch line, which often helps clarify Dugan's slight obscurities. You may not know what the poet means, but the music at least directs you to the right place emotionally."

—Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times, December 6, 2007

"James Matheson's Songs of Desire, Love, and Loss, a song cycle for soprano (Botti again, tracing and piercing) and mixed ensemble, gave seven poems by Alan Dugan an evocative treatment, the soprano unfolding words carefully and pointedly while the instruments provided dappled, dovetailed, secretive underpinning – painting the place of the poems."

—Timothy Mangan, The OC Register (Orange County, CA), December 5, 2007

"Far more substantive was True South, a work that American composer James Matheson wrote in 2010 on a commission by the New York Philharmonic. Matheson revealed that the original commission was for 22 players, including just two on each string part. 'When I heard that LACO was going to perform the piece with a full string complement,' he said in introductory remarks, 'I felt like a kid in a candy store.'

"The genesis of True South was a Werner Herzog documentary entitled Encounters at the End of the World, i.e., the South Pole). There were moments that felt like the icy wastes of that region (with overtones of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Simphonia Antarctica sneaking in), interspersed with lush, melodic sections and swooping screeches that sounded like birds wailing. I found it all fascinating and would love to hear it again."

—Robert D. Thomas, Class Act,

Oct. 8, 2012

"James Matheson's True South used the orchestra to make surprising sounds, if less enchanting than astonishing.

"Born in Des Moines in 1970, Matheson has been quickly collecting major commissions. The Chicago Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered his Violin Concerto last season. True South was commissioned for the New York Philharmonic's new music series, Contact, and Alan Gilbert conducted it at the end of 2010. LACO, though, was more generous by allotting a considerably larger string section to Matheson than had the New Yorkers.

"Matheson's inspiration was Werner Herzog's South Pole documentary Encounters at the End of the World, but the composer provided neither the grandeur nor the whimsy of the cinematic Antarctic encounters. The score had, instead, more of the aspect of an aggressive symphonic bestiary. I've always thought of the South Pole as a place of overpowering silent majesty. Matheson hears it as a landscape ripe for strange and fascinating guttural and esophageal instrumental effects carried on for 17 raucous minutes."

—Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 9, 2012

"But the centerpiece of the weekend's program was the first performance of James Matheson's The Paces: Concerto for Piano and Chamber Ensemble, with pianist Charles Abramovic as its masterly soloist. Matheson, born in 1970, studied with Gerald Levinson at Swarthmore College, and later with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra. His new piece (commissioned by Swarthmore's Gilmore and Mary Roelofs Stott Fund) is stylistically unusual. For one thing, it isn't afraid to be quiet. For another, it does not fear beauty. Think about how unusual that is among new works today.

"Its form is, loosely, theme and variations, starting with a shapely melody, and going on to explore one lovely harmony after another. It is dissonant, but doles out dissonance in carefully calculated doses.

"Most impressive, it always makes the unobvious aesthetic choice. It is prone to turn a melody in an unexpected direction, or color a harmony with a subtle surprise. All in all, no composers today aim for this kind of music—calm, confidently unresolved—except the French.

"The piano gets an extended solo section that acts, spiritually, as the piece's cadenza, and, rather than becoming the usual chance for virtuosity, it once again defies what the ears expect. In it, Matheson gives the concerto its most achingly tender moments."

—Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 10, 2003