As a boy growing up around New York City, Kenneth Fuchs would visit the piers along the Hudson River to see the ocean liners docked in New York Harbor. Among those ships was the S.S. United States, the flagship of America that in 1952 set the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, winning the prize of the Blue Riband.
“At that point you could walk up to the sea wall and the prow [of the ship] would literally be right in front of you, 50 feet away,” says Fuchs, now a professor of music composition in UConn’s School of Fine Arts. “It was unforgettable. I always had a special fondness for the S.S. United States. It’s our flagship, and its place in history always fascinated me.”
Two years ago, Fuchs decided to work on a composition paying tribute to the ship, and earlier this year he recorded “Atlantic Riband” – which he describes as his “tone poem” to the S.S. United States – with the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of his Juilliard classmate and longtime friend, JoAnn Falletta. Falletta, one of the world’s most celebrated conductors, is music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, which is located in Hampton Roads near the shipbuilding region that built the S.S. United States.
On Friday night, Sept. 7, “Atlantic Riband” will have its American debut at the Ferguson Center for the Performing Arts at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. The special concert is being promoted by the S.S. United States Conservancy, an organization created to restore the ocean liner and transform it into a mixed-use development and museum honoring American design and discovery. The organization is led by Susan Gibbs, the granddaughter of Williams Francis Gibbs, the noted naval architect who was the major influence behind the creation of naval cargo ships during World War II and who also designed the S.S. United States. Falletta will conduct the Virginia Symphony Orchestra for the performance.
“Ken reached out to tell us of his work,” Gibbs says. “It was just so fortuitous. It was a perfect example to us of how this ship continues to inspire us – whether in the arts, in design, or as symbolic of postwar American pride, patriotism, and technological innovation. Ken’s piece perfectly captures the S.S. United States’ enduring mystique.”
While driving with Falletta to record “Atlantic Riband” at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London with the London Symphony Orchestra, Fuchs told her of his personal connection to the S.S. United States and the Conservancy’s efforts.
“She immediately saw the advantage of doing the premiere in Virginia involving [her] orchestra,” Fuchs says. “As it turns out the Mariners Museum in Newport News has become involved. It’s become a big community effort. This was a natural fit for the Hampton Roads community.”
Falletta says she has watched Fuchs’s composing career begin with writing smaller compositions for chamber ensembles, gradually moving to larger orchestral works.
“I’ve seen him in the last decade or so take on big forces, not only that but with one of the greatest orchestras in the world, the LSO,” she says. “He’s taken a lot of chances on his music, gone in different directions. That’s led him to some new adventures.”
Fuchs says that in thinking about writing his tribute to the ocean liner he wanted to create “a big virtuosic orchestral piece in the form of a tone poem that summons up my feelings about the S.S. United States and the ocean-going enterprise of the mid-20thcentury.” His goal was to capture the sense of speed, power, and grace that a ship exhibits slicing across the Atlantic Ocean.
“The piece reflects that,” he says. “But it also, I hope, goes deeper to suggest the feelings of longing, of struggle, and ultimate victory for the tens of millions of immigrants who cross the Atlantic in search of a better life. Imagine what it was like to stand on the deck of a liner sailing under the Statue of Liberty for the first time.”
“Atlantic Riband” (Naxos) is the title track of Fuchs’ latest compact disc of compositions, which also includes “American Rhapsody (Romance for Violin and Orchestra);” “Divinum Mysterium (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra);” “Concerto Grosso (For String Quartet and String Orchestra);” and “Discover the Wild (Overture for Orchestra).”
The new recording has been favorably reviewed by the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), which describes Fuchs as “a master of orchestral writing.”
Reviewer Anthony Burton writes: “On Naxos’s third Fuchs recording, everything gets five-star treatment: violinist Michael Ludwig and viola player Paul Silverthorne make the solo parts their own, and the LSO under JoAnn Falletta sounds brilliant.”
Fuchs says that when he is composing for orchestra, he first sketches out musical ideas – harmonies, melodic ideas, and rhythmic patterns – and is able to organize them to begin writing the entire score for all the instruments of the orchestra.
“I usually hear the musical ideas for the orchestra from the beginning, with a semblance of the instruments I want, if not the finished orchestration,” he says.
Falletta says the overview that Fuchs is able to see from the inception of his composition is evident in a work such as “Atlantic Riband.”
“One of the things that makes him so successful, is his sense of architecture,” she says. “You get a sense of rightness. It unfolds in a way that is cohesive. It makes sense listening. I’m not surprised he thinks about it in that way. Part of his magic is how he uses his instruments. He works from the biggest picture inward.”
The S.S. United States Conservancy purchased the ocean liner, which has been docked in Philadelphia, in February 2011 with the goal of restoring the ship. The Conservancy hopes to establish a world-class museum and educational facilities, combined with a mixed-use commercial and public development with a range of possible revenue-generating uses that could include event space, restaurants, retail offerings, and a boutique hotel. The ocean liner has more than 500,000 square feet of usable interior space. The final destination for the S.S. United States would be a harbor docking in New York City or another urban waterfront setting. The Conservancy has launched a major national campaign at savetheunitedstates.org/ to help rescue the restore “America’s Flagship.”
For more information about the music of Kenneth Fuchs go to: http://music.uconn.edu/index.php/kenneth-fuchs
For more information about the S.S. United States Conservancy, go to: http:// ssunitedstatesconservancy.org/.