Viet Cuong (b.1990)
Next Week’s Trees—World Premiere
“Light is an invitation to happiness,” wrote beloved poet Mary Oliver in “Poppies”. We could all use such an invitation about now. We’ve been through a period of darkness, of present dread and future fear, a time of foreboding and separation. But such things don’t last. The light comes, bringing its invitation to happiness; the future beckons, gathering all around us.
Such is the theme of Oliver’s poem “Walking To Oak-Head Pond, And Thinking Of The Ponds I Will Visit In The Next Days And Weeks”. America’s poet of the natural world, Oliver casts her thoughts well ahead, rather than remaining stuck in the now or, worse, clutching the past. “I’m wading ahead in the sunlight—” she writes, “and I’m sure I can see the fields and ponds shining days ahead—I can see the light spilling like a shower of meteors into next week’s trees.”
Such is the inspiration for Composer-in-Residence Viet Cuong’s brand-new Next Week’s Trees for string orchestra, given its premiere in this concert by California Symphony. Next Week’s Trees exudes an altogether Mary Oliver-ish optimism, a sturdiness so characteristic of a writer whose daily walks through the New England countryside provided no end of inspiration, a world of birds and butterflies, mushrooms and mosses, of egrets and peonies and fish.
“In this particular time of great loss, I was deeply inspired by Oliver’s words—” writes Cuong of the work, “words that are a gentle reminder of the uncertainty of the future, the confident hope of the present, and the propulsive force of life that drives us through any doubt that a new day will arrive.” To bring musical life to these ideas, Cuong begins with extensive use of string pizzicato—i.e., plucked rather than bowed strings that creates a dancing, energetic affect, with arco (bowed) playing emerging gradually, and eventually, “which is a sort of musical reflection on Mary Oliver’s musings about inevitability.”
Listeners might hear other elements as well, such as the distinctly tape-loop vibe of much of the opening section with its collage-like echoed repetitions amongst the groups of string instruments, or the middle section’s ground bass idiom in which a cyclic pattern in the bass is complemented by an ever-changing set of variations above. But this is neither a gloss on such tape-loop classics as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band nor an antiquarian conjuring of ground bass à la Baroque music. Next Week’s Trees is its own thing, speaking in its own voice, music of today to be sure, but charged with a secure sense of not only the present, but of presents yet to come.
Program Annotator Scott Foglesong is the Chair of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a Contributing Writer and Lecturer for the San Francisco Symphony. He also leads the California Symphony’s ground-breaking music education course for adults Fresh Look: The Symphony Exposed.
This was the first episode of Poetry in Motion, a three-part virtual season finale series, which premiered FREE online at and on Walnut Creek Public Access TV on Saturday, May 8, 2021. Filmed at Bay Area landmark the Oakland Scottish Rite Center, the series featured music for string orchestra that uses poetry as a source of inspiration.