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America’s Only Orchestra

New York
Zanken Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/08/2008 -  
Michael Tenzer: Resolution
Uri Caine: Double Trouble
Evan Chambers: Concerto for Fiddle and Violin
Terry Riley: Remember This O Mind

Uri Caine (Piano), Evan Chambers (Irish Fiddle), Eva Gruessen (Violin), Terry Riley (Voice and Synthesizer), I. Wayan Sudrama and Michael Tenzer (Balinese Percussion)
American Composers Orchestra, David Alan Miller (Conductor)

For the future of our music, the American Composers Orchestra (ACO) is categorically the only essential orchestra in New York, if not in the whole country.

Yes, other orchestras shelve an American piece or two in between their dead composers, as if they might pin a colorful bangle on a heavy Victorian mannequin. But in its 31 years of existence, with artistic advisors which run the gamut of American composition, the ACO has performed and recorded works by more than 500 American composers, including more than 125 world premieres.

Audiences here do not have to gear up for something unusual. An evening with ACO is, by definition, an evening of surprise, freshness and frequently wonder. Even more important is that it is obvious that no American “school” like the “Second Viennese School” exists here. Our diversity and ingenuity inhabit every work.

Last night had four works, but outside of one conductor—the meticulous David Alan Miller—and the excellent players themselves, including the composers, they were singularly fascinating.

Having dwelt in many of the cinnamon-and-clove scented islands of Indonesia, I was intrigued (and a bit worried) how Balinese music expert Michael Tenzer would handle a work which included only short drums. In gamelan music, drums are essential only as a guide for the rhythm and signaling the gongs and xylophones in different tempi. Here, Tenzer himself and Balinese musician I. Wayan Sudrama played a variety of rhythms with the most subtle changes of sound from fingers and palms on their drums, all against dissonant variations in the orchestra.

At first, the drums seemed unnecessary, as the full orchestra was spiritedly playing away. But for a few measures, the drums stopped, and one felt suspended in mid-air, as if we needed these instruments. No matter how low the tuba or trombones, or how the percussion in the back was played, the soft comforting sounds of the two kenangs gave the pulse and even meaning to the work.

The penultimate work was the most conservative of all, an Irish-inspired Concerto for Fiddle and Violin. The instruments were the same, but composer Evan Chambers played his violin just a quartertone off, a bit flatter in tone, with a bit more slide. Then ACO’s concertmaster, Eva Gruessen, was a bit more classical, but the two intertwined through some pretty Irish-type jig and lullaby music. But the real color came in the contrast between the two soloists and the excellent string choir of the orchestra.

The final piece was the longest: Terry Riley’s Remember This O Mind, based on three poems by the Bengali Saint Sir Ramakrishna. Riley himself sung and played the synthesizer with the orchestra in a variety of moods. The introduction was purely Bengali, Riley singing a raga, his synthesizer the mirror image of a sitar. As the work progressed, the orchestra joined in different (but always respectful) moods, from slight jazz to blues to luscious music which seemed to come from Barber’s Adagio.

I have saved the second work, Uri Caine’s Double Trouble for last, since it is impossible to forget his piano playing. His was basically improvisatory, with heavy jazz syncopation and bits of blues; the orchestra served as a rhythm section which set up the textures for Caine’s work.

And what work that was. Think only of a volcano spitting up lava, or try to imagine infinite notes in a square inch or music. Caine’s fingers did not race over the keyboard, he seemed to create wormholes where his hands could reach over the universe in two seconds and then come down, while he swayed to his own tones, tossing pages of music away with one hand while playing with electron-like speed with the other.

A horrible image, but Caine’s digital genius made the work of the late Oscar Peterson seem akin to Morton Feldman!

Altogether, the kind of typical evening for ACO which, for the rest of us, was an amazing evening.

Harry Rolnick



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