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Color Field

Anna Clyne’s Color Field (2020) is a musical response to the painter Mark Rothko’s vibrant Yellow, Red, Orange. A painter as well as a composer, Clyne is stimulated by correspondences between visual art and music.

Anna Clyne was born in London on March 9, 1980, and lives in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. She wrote Color Field on commission from Bonnie McElveen-Hunter in honor of the philanthropist Melanie Sabelhaus. Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the premiere performance on October 23, 2021, at the Music Center at Strathmore, Bethesda, MD. First Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of the piece: April 4-6, 2024, Andris Nelsons conducting.

The score of Color Field calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (four players: I. vibraphone, crotales, two tom-toms; II. vibraphone, crotales, two tom-toms); III. suspended cymbal, very large tam-tam, bass drum; IV. hi-hat, suspended cymbal, mounted and hand-held tambourines, snare drum), and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 15 minutes long.

Anna Clyne was born in London and studied at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where she studied with Marina Adamia, before attending the Manhattan School of Music for her master’s degree in composition. At Manhattan she worked with composer Julia Wolfe, co-founder of the New York City-based composer/performer collective Bang on a Can; Clyne was a Bang on a Can Summer Festival Fellow in 2005, and became a vital part of the New York City’s new music community; her work featured frequently on Bang on a Can programs.

A busy and prolific composer, Clyne was composer-in-residence, along with Mason Bates, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 2010-15. Among the works she wrote for the CSO was her evocative orchestral work Night Ferry (2012), which caught the orchestral world’s attention. Her violin concerto The Seamstress (2015) was composed for the CSO and soloist Jennifer Koh. Conductor Marin Alsop has been a strong supporter, instigating commissions for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Cabrillo Festival, and for the Taki Concordia Orchestra for performance during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Alsop led the BBC Proms premiere of Masquerade with the BBC Symphony; the BBC Symphony’s recording of that piece and four others, including Night Ferry and also featuring conductors Andrew Litton and Sakari Oramo, was released on the all-Clyne album Mythologies in 2020. Masquerade was played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in summer 2022. Clyne is also active as a composer of chamber, vocal, and electroacoustic music, as well as music for the stage.

Clyne has written two concertante pieces for solo cello (her own main instrument) and ensemble: Shorthand for cello and strings for Eric Jacobsen and the Orlando Philharmonic (2020) and DANCE for cello and full orchestra, premiered by Inbal Segev and conductor Cristian Măcelaru at the Cabrillo Festival in 2019 and later recorded by Segev with Marin Alsop and the London Philharmonic. A new clarinet concerto for Martin Fröst and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was premiered in January 2023. She had two orchestral premieres in summer 2023: Wild Geese, at the Cabrillo Festival, and This Moment, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Her major piano concerto ATLAS, inspired by the work of the contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter, was premiered on March 28, 2024, by Jeremy Denk with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra led by Fabio Luisi.

Having championed Clyne’s music on many occasions, Marin Alsop was the natural choice for the premiere of Color Field, which she led with the Baltimore Symphony in October 2021; the first performances had originally been scheduled for March 2020 but were delayed due to the pandemic. The piece was commissioned by the philanthropist Bonnie McElveen-Hunter for another social-welfare advocate, Melanie Sabelhaus; both have been strongly connected to the American Red Cross.

Particularly since the end of the 19th century, there has been a powerful conversation between visual art and music, beginning most clearly with Claude Debussy’s musical allusions to the American impressionist James McNeill Whistler. In addition to composing, Anna Clyne is herself a painter and has written based on the work of other painters, including her Gerhard Richter-inspired piano concerto ATLAS. She composed Night Ferry as a kind of conversation between her own painting and her music. One of the inspirations for her Color Field was a painting by the Latvian-born American artist Mark Rothko. “Color field” painting was a stylistic byway of American post World War II abstract expressionist painting exemplified by Rothko’s work. Others include Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Morris Louis, and Helen Frankenthaler (whose work inspired the composer Elliott Carter’s musical analogy Sound Fields), among many others.

The three movements of Color Field correspond to the three fields of Rothko’s painting. The first two movements are highly contrasted—the first, “Yellow,” might be called impressionistic in its shimmering texture, marked “Hazy warmth,” while the second, “Red,” is sharp and aggressive, “with fire and drive.” The two come together in the varied textures of the third part, “Orange.” The composer’s own note on the piece follows.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the BSO’s Director of Program Publications.

Composer Anna Clyne on her Color Field

The central inspiration for Color Field is a person: Melanie Sabelhaus, the honoree of this work. I began the creative process upon first meeting Sabelhaus in New York City, when I learned about her family, her Serbian roots, her work, and the music she loves. She is bold, audacious, generous, and a pioneer for women in business and philanthropic work.

She also loves the color orange—in particular Hermès Orange—and thus began my exploration of color. This led me to Mark Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961)—a powerful example of the artist’s Color Field paintings, featuring red and yellow framing a massive swash of vibrant orange that seems to vibrate off the canvas.

While I explored creating music that evokes colors, I thought about synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon in which a person hears sound, pitch and tonal centers and then sees specific colors, and vice versa. In the case of composer Scriabin, he associated specific pitches with specific colors, which I have adopted as tonal centers for the three movements of this piece: Yellow = D, Red = C, Orange = G.

Each movement of Color Field weaves in elements of the life of Melanie Sabelhaus, for whom music has always been in the house. Yellow evokes a hazy warmth and incorporates a traditional Serbian melody, first heard as a very slow bass line, and then revealed in the middle of the movement in the strings and winds. In Red, the fires blaze with bold percussive patterns and lilting lines. In Orange, the music becomes still and breathes, and then escalates once more, incorporating elements of Yellow and Red to create Orange—the signature color of Melanie Sabelhaus.

Anna Clyne, 2020