Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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June 12, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The American Composers Orchestra: Cutting Edge Sounds from Across the Decades at Carnegie Hall

The American Composers Orchestra’s main mission is to whip new material into shape so as to entice other enterpising orchestras to play it. A daunting task, but one they’ve tackled gamely since the group’s inception back in the 90s. The group’s appeal is bittersweet: along with many tantalizing premieres that other orchestras will pick up, the ACO also plays a lot of material that you’ll never hear again. And that they’ll never play again, which makes their job so much harder considering that they have to learn so much of their repertoire, such that it is, from scratch. Friday night’s Carnegie Hall performance was typically eclectic and more historically-infused than usual, featuring an old standard of the avant garde that’s lived to claim its place, more or less, in the standard repertoire; a rarity from Mexico; two new works utilizing wavelike motives, the second much more successfully than the first; and a suite of new songs by the orchestra’s main man Derek Bermel.

They opened with a rather twistedly fascinating rarity, Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ 1932 suite, Alcancias (literally, the title means “piggy bank;” figuratively, it can also mean “bullet” or “pimp”). The middle section was an uselfconsciously pretty pastorale lit up with a lyrically panoramic solo by oboeist Kathy Halvorson. On either side of it was a frantic, Keystone Kops pastiche of snippets of folk tunes, ragtime and vaudeville, so blustery that the pageantry seemed suspiciously forced. A satire, maybe?

The evening’s piece de resistance was the New York premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Manchay Tiempo, a chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque depiction of waves of fear inspired by childhood exposure to a documentary about terrorism in 1970s Chile, where her mother grew up. Frank flaunts her multiculturalism fearlessly: no idiom is off limits. That fearlessness extends to subject matter and emotional content as well, in this case a series of slow, menacing glissandos and murderously creeping crescendos, a knife’s-edge depiction of terror in the night, noir in the purest sense of the word. The surreal, off-center, tone-bending “is this really happening” ambience finally faded down to an unexpected calm at the end, a terrorized child finally drifting off to sleep. It’s impossible to think of a more gripping piece of music performed on a New York stage this year.

Gunther Schuller‘s Contours was considered radical when it debuted in 1958. More than half a century later, the composer’s vision has been more than validated: it’s still pretty cutting-edge. Conductor George Manahan, poised on his heels, was clearly having a good time with Schuller’s long, suspenseful crescendos, jazzy rhythms and bracing post-Ives lyricism and so was the orchestra. The program concluded with Bermel’s new suite of Eugenio de Andrade songs, delivered guardedly and methodically in a cool alto by Luciana Souza, building tension and intensity almost imperceptibly through deft manipulation of a series of circular, often hypnotic, yet equally kinetic themes.

One upcoming ACO series of concerts that’s been regularly promising is their Underwood readings of new works by up-and-coming composers at the DiMenna Center this coming June 5 and 6.

April 5, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

High Energy and World Premieres from the American Composers Orchestra

American Composers Orchestra honcho Michael Geller has gone on record as saying that producing good concerts isn’t the organization’s main focus: they’re more of a vehicle for new composers to develop fungible, orchestra-ready repertoire. That’s a hefty agenda, but along the way the ACO manages to put out albums and play concerts that are often spectacularly entertaining, not just because of the diversity of the composers whose work they thrash into shape. Carnegie Hall last night was a launching pad for some of that: two world premieres, an American premiere and a familiar crowd-pleaser from an earlier era conducted robustly by guest Jose Serebrier.

Narong Prangcharoen’s The Migration of Lost Souls, inspired by the temple bell music of his native Thailand opened the show dramatically and intensely, essentially a suspenseful, serialistic tone poem punctuated by breathless, often terrorized bursts of agitation. Sepulchral washes of airy strings built to bustling, rapidfire cascades, often utilizing the entire orchestra but also making vivid use of the xylophone to mimic the lickety-split phrasing of northern Thai mor lan music. The carnival of souls finally found peace at the end in the gamelan-like resonance of bells and a boomy bass gong.

Milica Paranosic’s The Tiger’s Wife: Prologue, utilizing texts from the popular Tea Obreht novel, went for similar dramatics with mixed results. It’s a powerful and vivid piece of music, a diptych of sorts, beginning with a tense, niftily orchestrated, suspensefully rhythmic tone poem and ending with a blazing, gypsy-tinged overture. Unfortunately, an inspired performance by the orchestra threatened to be subsumed in a deluge of bells and whistles. Singer Lori Cotler delivered the lyrics with an aptly biting edge, but a lot of that got lost in a tumble of south Indian takadimi drum language. It’s a device she employs with spectacular dexterity and not a little wit in a radically different context, as part of the playful Takadimi Duo. But all the diggity-doo was as out of place here as rosewater on a burek – or in more prosaic terms, like ketchup on ice cream. There were also electronics, which added nothing: Cotler’s vocals were strong, and the orchestra was going full force. Meanwhile, a high-definition vacation video of sorts played on a screen overhead and proved far less interesting than the orchestra. Was this an attempt to connect with a youtube generation that ostensibly can’t relate to anything without visuals? In terms the youtube generation knows well: epic fail.

Some of Charles Ives’ work was paradigm-shifting; his Symphony No. 3 wasn’t. But this performance was hardly boring, the orchestra taking a briskly energetic, sometimes even romping journey through its often folksy “Camp Meeting” cinematics. The boisterous, rhythmic energy wound up with the American premiere of the conductor’s Flute Concerto with Tango. Its tango rhythm is syncopated bracingly in the beginning – it’s missing the heavy, defining third beat – so a recognizable tango per se doesn’t appear until the concluding movement. Along the way, flutist Sharon Bezaly negotiated thicket after thicket of knotty, lickety-split rivulets and a long, taqsim-like, mostly solo interlude on alto flute, all the way through to a dancing coda.

Not only do the ACO premiere their composers’ works, they also workshop them live, which can be a treat to witness for serious listeners and students of the style. The next one is at Mannes College Auditorium on the upper west side on Nov 13 at 2 PM.

October 27, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pitch Black American Pie

That the American Composers Orchestra’s program Saturday night at the World Financial Center, closing this year’s SONIC Festival, would be saddled with a title that evoked boomer nostalgia made no sense at all. Maybe it was an inside joke, or a stroke of sarcasm. Instead, the ensemble treated the crowd to a fiery, frequently noir and brilliantly played series of ambitious new works by up-and-coming American composers. Conductor George Manahan led them with an almost casual but ironclad confidence, beginning with Paul Yeon Lee’s showstopper Echo of a Dream. A towering, often ferocious work that arranged modern tonalities in familiar High Romantic architecture, it was a tour of a monstrous landscape with fear and apprehension at every turn. A bellicose March of the Orcs! A swooping, darting, terrified Flight of the Nazgul! And The Siege of Minas Something, which ended minus the orchestra as Lee deftly dropped almost everything out for a split-second of cliffhanger suspense. For all the sturm und drang, the orchestra delivered it so matter-of-factly that it couldn’t have been anything other than genuine. Such storms do in fact exist, and it was a blast to hear this one and know that Lee is keeping an old flame very, very much alive while fueling it with something that could only have been invented in this century.

Ruby Fulton’s Road Ranger Cowboy was much quieter, but packed just as much of a wallop. Based on a caricature used by the Road Ranger chain of truck stops in the midwest, it’s a portrait of both incongruity – a horseman at a truck stop? – and clinical narcissism, and its pathological effects on the personality. Like the best political art, it manages to be very funny: a cowboy theme that disintegrates slowly and inevitably, leading up to an absolutely hilarious ending, in this case where the first violinist got to deliver the punchline and was obviously having such a good time that she could barely keep a straight face.

Ryan Gallagher’s Grindhouse might have been sarcastically titled as well. A classy, sometimes macabre film noir mini-suite, it was the high point of the night. Eerily shifting atmospherics contrasted with an aghast crescendo with the brass and high winds shrieking, skeleton key percussion, a furtive pizzicato spy vs. spy theme scene, a handful of pummelling, murderous scenes and a titanic ending that wouldn’t be out of place in Shostakovich. Suzanne Farrin’s equally gripping Infinite Here was brooding and more ambient but maintained the dark mood, slowly and methodically building tension and apprehension. In this piece, here is limbo, next door to hell.

Andrew Norman’s Unstuck was the most diverse piece on the bill, matching some of the drama of Lee’s work with Gallagher’s noirisms and Farrin’s vividly overcast milieu. Creepy swirls of strings, doppler brass and unpredictable percussion made a lethal combination that set off a chain of ominous little explosions which grew absolutely ballistic, then went down morosely and back up again to a surprise ending.

The biggest surprise of the night was Bryce Dessner’s St. Carolyn by the Sea, on which he and his brother Aaron joined the orchestra on electric guitars. The Dessners’ band the National is a derivative but very effective cure for insomnia: this piece was anything but. Inspired by Kerouac’s Big Sur, it’s supposed to evoke loneliness and lost love. From its windswept, desolate overture, carefully articulated thematic shifts throughout the orchestra, and pensive circular motif that ran over and over as an underpinning toward the end, the ensemble took what could have been an awkward 5/4 tempo and made it comfortable and effortless. Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the guitar melodies were the least memorable, whether recycled 17 Seconds-era Robert Smith meandering or sotto-voce Grey McMurray tremolo-picking. Maybe the Dessners were just trying to blend in with the orchestra. Either way, it looks like Bryce Dessner has found his muse in a big way.

Much of this will be airing at some future date on Q2 – tune in and find out.

October 24, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The American Composers Orchestra Plays It Unsafe

The American Composers Orchestra has taken to doing what the New York Phil has, offering recordings of their concerts online – and why not? Their Playing It Unsafe program at Carnegie Hall from February, 2009 with Jeffrey Milarsky conducting is unselfconsciously accessible, yet much of it is cutting-edge, and the ensemble turns in a characteristically inspired performance.

The concert opens with Anna Clyne’s Tender Hooks, percussive swirl with distant martial allusions eventually giving way to a suspensefully punctuated tone poem. From there, the orchestra methodically drives to a crescendo with piano and percussion, followed by an eerily starlit little piano waltz that quotes liberally from the Moonlight Sonata – and ends cold, mid-phrase. With echoes of John Williams or Gustav Holst, Charles Norman Mason’s Additions is an austerely staccato, marionettish dance bookended by water-drip percussion. Dan Trueman’s Silicon/Carbon: An Anti-Concerto-Grosso begins with a seemingly unrelated allusions to Appalachian fiddling and then offers spaciously horizontal, Uranian ambience punctuated by occasional percussion and bell-like tones, a handful of crescendos to restart the suspense and a clever rhythmic tradeofff between the percussion section and the entire orchestra toward the end.

Overture and Ballet Music from Armide, by Jonathan Dawe works disconnected, overlapping passages that in places seem to parody generic classical crescendos and percussion breaks, hinting at florid but never going there. There’s a jarring vocal interlude that does nothing to enhance it, but the “passacaille” that closes the work vividly sets a multitude of matter-of-fact phrases entering the picture and then disappearing in turn rather than stepping all over each other, a trick from the world of dub reggae. The final piece, Ned McGowan’s Bantammer Swing features his own contrabass flute for some intriguing tonalities. Like the Clyne and Trueman pieces, it’s cinematic, the most suspenseful work here. The first movement moves steadily and pensively up and down; the brooding andante sostenuto of the second is the most gripping part of this album, sheets of noise finally rising ominously as the brass exchanges uneasy flutters. It ends on an unexpectedly playful, genuinely funny note with swooping motifs, a couple of jagged bass solos and a fun little rondo to wind it out. The whole album is streaming at instantencore, a very smart marketing move since a listen all the way through is the best advertisement this entertaining performance could possibly have.

March 19, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment