The American Composers Orchestra Celebrates Cinematically Brilliant New Music
When the members of the orchestra outnumber the audience, that’s usually a sign of trouble. While that was the situation the sold-out crowd who’d been lucky enough to score early reservations for the American Composers Orchestra‘s annual Underwood New Music Readings found themselves in at the DiMenna Center Saturday night, there isn’t much room for anyone other than the orchestra in that space’s cozy confines. And much as sitting in the front row at an orchestral performance doesn’t typically offer much in the way of sightlines, it’s a sonic thrill, and this was a thrilling program. Conductor George Manahan cautioned the audience that this would be a working rehearsal, strictly a series of works in progress. But the ensemble’s passion and enthusiasm for the pieces, for which they’d had all of one previous rehearsal, was visceral. And it should have been: a mix of ACO-affiliated composers had chosen the program from scores of submissions from around the world, the culmination of their EarShot program, which pairs up-and-coming American composers with orchestras to refine and then perform their works.
The unifying link among new compositions by Harry Stafylakis, Andy Akiho, Jared Miller, Melody Eotvos, Kyle Peter Rotolo and Wang A-Mao was chase scenes. If this bill is an accurate reflection of what composers in general are doing, they’re after the same thing as their counterparts in the rock world: getting on a film soundtrack, preferably a big-budget action thriller. Most of the pieces being showcased shared a cinematic quality, dynamics turning on a dime from hushed to frenetic, replete with ebbs and swells that relied heavily on the orchestra’s percussion section. The rear of the orchestra was like the deck of an aircraft carrier under fire, switching up bells and timpani and marimbas and everything in their arsenal with an aplomb that was even more impressive under the circumstances.
Stafylakis’ Brittle Fracture, a turbulent, dramatic overture of sorts, opened the concert, ominously pulsing low brass contrasting with midrange resonance, its chase scene appearing midway through. Andy Akiho, a virtuoso steel pan player, included the instrument in the score of his similarly energetic, suspensefully picturesque Tarnished Mirrors, but blended it into the overall mix of timbres as the work rose from wave motion fueled by koto-like harp, to a lithe dance, a chase scene and a completely unexpected, warily atmospheric ending.
An “inherent sense of creepiness,” as Eotvos put it, permeated her quartet Beetles, Dragons & Dreamers. With its relentless unease and occasional explosiveness, it made for a sensationally good centerpiece. The opening theme, Draconian Measures, had a tense lushness, rippling cascades and then what was by now the expected pursuit segment. Lilith, Begone was both the most accessible and menacing piece on the bill, followed by a restless tone poem, The Inanimate Spider and then a lingering, knife’s-edge conclusion, Trojan Horse. Over and over, Eotvos punctured shifting, atmospheric sheets from the strings with sudden, jagged motives from throughout the orchestra to max out the suspense factor.
Composer Robert Honstein explained that Rise, his attempt at crafting a 21st century pastorale, was trickier than it would have been before the age of global warming. A trouble-in-paradise tableau, it artfully developed an increasing apprehension as it grew from a spectral, nebulous ambience to a coldly sarcastic march and a decidedly unresolved ending.
Imbued with considerable dry wit, Miller’s Contrasted Perspectives – a joint homage to Dali and Fellini – were a lot of fun. The first part, awash in surrealistic close harmonies, segued well out of Miller’s troubled ambience. The second echoed Prokofiev with its animated rhythms, phantasmagorical colors and shapeshifting trajectory spiced with hints of vaudeville and jazz.
Rotolo’s Apophis followed the trajectory of an asteroid on its way to a collision with Earth, a fluttering, frantic theme juxtaposed against an eerie, recurrent calm and then a split-second coda: a sort of Planet X from Holst’s suite. The concert wound up with Wang A-Mao’s Characters in Theatre, a deviously propulsive, explosively rhythmic male/female character study based on Chinese opera. Its lively, stagy bombast occasionally diverging to a resolute if infrequent calm, sensibility versus bluster, could be interpreted as a feminist reading of kabuki theatre. As little time as the woman got in the spotlight, she was a voice of reason to an oblivious if entertaining buffoon. If this is the future of classical music, we have no worries, at least on the composition side.