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Soundscapes And Stases

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
11/14/2008 -  
Kamran Ince: Domes (New York Premiere)
Fred Ho: When the Red Dragons Fly (World Premiere)
Gregory Spears: Finishing (New York Premiere)
Keeril Makan: Dream Lightly (World Premiere)
Clint Needham Chamber Symphony (World Premiere)

Fred Ho (Baritone Saxophone), Seth Josel (Electric Guitar), Robert Besser (Artistic Director)
American Composers Orchestra, Jeffrey Milarsky (Conductor)

Fred Ho (© Robert Adam Mayer)

The title of this, the first American Composers Orchestra (ACO) concert of the season, was “Orchestra Underground”, but that was overdoing it. Four of the five composers were hardly breaking new ground, and Fred Ho, who actually was creating something new, is so well known to jazz and contemporary listeners that it hardly seemed original.

This is not meant to dismiss either the ACO or their composers last night. The 45-person Orchestra, now in its fourth decade, is, according to its own notes, “the only orchestra dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation and promulgation of music by American composers”. More than that, each of the composers goes through rigorous sessions with the ACO long before the performance, ridding itself of kinks, altering, improving and making their work as good as possible.

Historically, I can’t think of any composer except Haydn who had an orchestra all of their own, for experimenting and performing. Haydn had Europe’s richest man to take care of the bills. In America, the ACO depends upon the chancy factor of grants and organizations like the National Foundation For The Arts.

While I am certain Papa Haydn was a top-rate conductor, he was probably no Jeffrey Milarsky, one of the most important conductors in America today. Taking five different premieres in one concert, giving them each authoritative readings, is hardly simple. But his confidence and technique pleased audience, orchestra, and all five composers, who were present.

But what of this music? Two of the pieces—Fred Ho’s When The Red Dragon Flies and Clint Needham’s Chamber Symphony had the advantage of volition. Mr. Ho played his own mighty baritone sax against the first composition he had written for a “traditional Western European orchestra”. Before this, Ho had worked with jazz ensembles or Asian-European groups. He had no problems making super-cacophony at the start and some terrific Latin beats at the end. But what made this work go was Mr. Ho himself, whose breath control on his instrument was absolutely amazing.

Before the work, a short film showed Mr. Ho, now recovering from cancer, speaking about the disease and his own new feeling of either qi energy or “even shamanism”. (Though, he said, “I’m no New Ager!”). That energy went into each note, where timbre and color together varied to the most infinitesimal nuance. In this case, the orchestra served like a Baroque ritornello, giving him a chance to push the music with glee and power.

Clint Needham’s Chamber Symphony made attempts at Charles Ives perhaps, but instead we heard some robust American music playing, in honor of the recent election. The tubas and other brass were blaring, the drums drumming, and the middle section was a truly beautiful miniature of calm. Ives would have started with this music and then let all happy hell break loose. Mr. Needham was content to let the tunes roll out, which was probably sufficient.

It was certainly sufficient compared to the three other works. They were made (or inspired) by composers who obviously know their orchestra. But, perhaps by coincidence, all three works were based on music which didn’t move.

I did enjoy Kamran Ince’s tribute to Roman and Istanbul Domes, because I like Respighi paintings. Domes had a steady understructure of violins playing in the highest harmonics, while blurts of other instruments came back and forth to complete the landscape. It sounded (as Respighi sometimes does) like film music, but music by the best composer, Bernard Herrmann. But didn’t really go much further than that. I was recalling how both the Catholic and Islamic domes were built upon pagan temples. Nothing pagan was found here. But it was a pleasant secular holiday.

The following works were similarly unassuming, both with original instrumentation. Most effective was Keeril Makan’s Dream Lightly with Seth Josel playing almost unearthly harmonics on his electric guitar, while the orchestra traced some luculent patterns around him. As the composer describes it, “we are placed in a world that is beautifully paralyzed or perhaps paralyzed by beauty”.

Gregory Spears had the same idea in Finishing, exploring “veneer finishes” on books, and “dark melancholic finishes”. He used this orchestra with great delicacy, since many of the sounds were made by dog-whistles and small tape recorders to give a kind of haze to the trumpet calls and strings.

Not a single work showed a single measure out of place or didn’t have a certain retroactive charm. Perhaps this was because they had worked with the ACO before, perhaps this is the “neo-Copland” school (three of the pieces were OD’ing on Quiet City). Perhaps with time, they will fly into their own Elysiums.

Harry Rolnick



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