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Ecstasies and Electronics

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
12/03/2010 -  
Orchestra Underground: A Time & Place:
Charles Ives: Central Park in the Dark
Ryan Francis: High Line (World Premiere, ACO/LVMH “A Greener New York City” co-commission)
Douglas J. Cuomo: Black Diamond Express to Hell (World Premiere, ACO co-commission)
Christopher Trapani: Westering (World Premiere, ACO commission)
Jerome Kitzke: The Fire At 4 a.m. (World Premiere, ACO commission)

Maya Beiser (Cello), Douglas J. Cuomo (Electronics), Christopher Trapiani (Hexaphonic Guitar)
American Composers Orchestra, George Manahan (Music Director and Conductor)

G. Manahan (© Richard Bowditch)

Two nights ago, a pair of Scandinavian composers offered soft, elegant premieres. Last night, the American Composers Orchestra (ACO) gave four premieres neither elegant nor soft, but usually fascinating.The quartet of composers were each vibrant, singular, frequently uninhibited and always feverishly creative.

George Manahan, a conductor who, like Joel Sachs at Juilliard, can get to the heart of new music with orchestras of gifted young musicians, began with a work written–wait for it!!!–103 years ago, Ives’s Central Park in the Dark. It could have been written today.

My single objection was a strong one. The lights at Zankel Hall are so bright, even during the concerts, that it never had a chance. Ives’ tone-poem is a giant crescendo-decrescendo, beginning with a few dissonant flutters, continuing to a few winds tootling, a full-scale “ragtime war” and back again to the night It was the quietest ending of the evening, but the tension was almost as blatant as the awful lighting!

Needless to say, the audience was filled with New York’s elite composers, teachers and practitioners of the most advanced music. While all the music had its attractions, two of the works were probably appreciated most by them.

Ryan Francis’ High Line was a celebration of the partly finished series of gardens and promenades downtown in the Meat-Packing District. Mr. Phillips described in the program how the greenery, architecture, and views of the Hudson River give a “startling sense of vastness”, Attempting to put this in music, he created a series of orchestral structures, one atop the other. It wasn’t so much the High Line that I pictured as a Cubist painting. The building up, the slight fading down, the different orchestral colors were never boring in themselves, but the nine minutes seemed little more than a series of quiescent floating blocks

The neologistic Westering highlighted composer Christopher Trapani performance on the “hexaphonic guitar”, a new electronic instrument that sends out separate signals with each string. The details given in the program were diverse. Pitch, timbre, movements and effects can be changed in real time. And here, the sounds were aided by the computer program Orchidée to transform the sounds into “a haze or halo behind the orchestra.”

Whew! The theme was music of the West: West Africa, California folk rock and psychedelic San Francisco rock. I envy the composer his knowledge, his challenges, his technique, but the music was a blur of densities for an audience which understood more than I.

J. Kitzke (© Brooks Hirsch)

The most uninhibitedly rousing experience was given in The Fire At 4 a.m., by Jerome Kitzke, an enigmatic title which referred to the American Indian settlements near the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. The ACO played two roles here, shouting, in vowel-like syllables, perhaps from American Indian chants. With this was percussion starting with Native American beats, then transformed, over the 15 minutes, into more frenzied drumming vibrating in from all parts of the orchestra.

The music itself started with a homophonic loud line, which rarely let up. The harmonies were no more difficult than New York Broadway shows (they showed the usual Bernstein-like vivacity), two of the sections could have been written in any Republic Pictures cowboy film of the 1940’s. But vivacity was infectious, the shout-outs were thrilling, and the near-climax–a quiet moment, perhaps a Lakota lamentation for the death of their Chief–was touching.

D. Cuomo (© Dan Fried)

The best I leave for last. Doug Cuomo’s Black Diamond Express Train to Hell. Theoretically, we had a concerto for three voices. First, the extraordinary cello playing by that iconic figure of American avant-garde, Maya Beiser. Second, the ACO itself. Third, the original sermonizing and singing of 1920’s/30’s Afro-American evangelist, Reverend A.W. Nix. Such a powerhouse speaker was he that 50 of his sermons were recorded and sold to the public.

Mr. Cuomo took this original sermon and one song, re-ordered and re-mixed them, so he could bring out any phrases or words on his electronic keyboard. The words, the cello–lush, loud, romantic, lyrical, with an astounding cadenza leading to the song–and the orchestra with its choral jumps and orchestral shouts–cannot begin to give the effect.

That effect, in one word, was ecstatic. Thirteen minutes of velocity and ecstasy, a music which plunged and shouted, which filled Zankel Hall with lauds, antiphonies and resonating allelujahs!. Mr. Cuomo’s work was so mesmerizing, so fiercely American in the American sense of Whitman, Hart Crane and Ives that I frankly could not wholly embrace what I heard.

During the intermission, I eschewed the professional-packed lobby, choosing to stand out in the brisk weather. And there I imagined an audience encompassing Monteverdi and Muddy Waters, Mozart and Stravinsky (the young Stravinsky before he was emotionally castrated), Des Prés and Janácek, Medieval Minnesingers and 20th Century Spectralists listening to the electrifying piece together.

And Palestrina would turn to Varèse and say, “Well, this Doug Cuomo, he ain’t my century, but I didn’t need any instructions or directions or rationales.”

And Mozart would turn to Janácek and say, “He’s his own man with his own music. He’s grabbed me by the tones and the testicles. That’s good enough for me”.

And the rest of the pantheon would happily, even rapturously agree.

Harry Rolnick



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