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A Non-Taxing Capital Performance

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/10/2011 -  
George Tsontakis: Let the River Be Unbroken
“The Spirituals Project”
John Harbison: Ain’t Goin’ to Study War No Mo
Daniel Bernard Roumain: Harvest
Bon-Ching Lam: Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
Tania Leon: Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel
Donald Fox: Hear de’ Lambs A’Cryin’
Kevin Beavers: Deep River
Richard Adams: Stan’ Still, Jordan
Stephen Dankner: Wade in de’ Water Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring (Complete ballet)

Nathan De’Shon Myers (Baritone), Gregor Kitzis (Fiddler)
Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller (Music Director)

The name Albany, to New York City denizens, is “that place up the river”, the supposed capital of New York State. Most Governors try to avoid its heavy architectural drabness, most legislators have been so corrupt over the years that even Boss Tweed, the notoriously crooked kingpin of New York City in the 1870’s, habitually cursed its venality.

Learning that Albany had an orchestra–an orchestra in its 81st year, a veritable dragon in commissioning new music–was a revelation. And while the adjective “spiritual” hardly applies to Albany’s elected felons, the Albany Symphony beat the odds by dedicating the first half of their concert in Carnegie Hall to American spirituals, White and Black.

The “White” spirituals, songs of the Civil War, were essayed by that splendid composer George Tsontakis, one of Albany’s composers-in-residence. His Fourth Quartet was a subtle delight of hidden Beethoven quotes, but this suite of songs Let the River Be Unbroken, was hardly subtle. It started with cocked-hat fiddler Gregor Kitzis, strolling down the aisle playing a jig, then joined by the orchestra in a mélange of (to my ears) unknown songs like “Farewell to Whiskey” and “Neil Gow’s Lament on the Death of his Second Wife”.

While staying on the Northern side, these were the tunes which Charles Ives loved, placing them in the most unlikely settings. On the Southern side, Darius Milhaud’s Kentuckiana uses about 25 Kentucky folk songs in 12 minutes, piling quodlibet upon quodlibet upon quodlibet.

Mr. Tsontakis was less creative, though his choices and sometimes “period” orchestrations offered new music from 150 years ago. The final lament upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, “All Quiet Along the Potomac” was a touching tribute, leaving to the obvious ending of our fiddler going back up the aisle with his now lonely jig.

The Albany Symphony conductor, David Alan Miller, is now in his 18th year with the ensemble, and obviously has a rapport with his group. More than that, though, he has received many a plaudit for creative programming, as in the second work, “The Spirtuals Project”.

By commissioning eight composers to orchestrate Black spirituals, he was following the early 18th Century tradition of paying a dozen-odd composers to write variations (“Diabelli”, for instance) or series of original waltzes. The spirituals, sung with well-trained gusto by baritone Nathan De’Shon Myers, was given conservative but modern treatments of varying quality. My favorite by far was Donal Fox’s “Hear de’ Lambs A’cryin’”. Perhaps because Mr. Fox is a jazz pianist, he carefully avoided anything like jazz, but created a tragic song, starting with a remote simulated “cryin’”, continuing with a low brass repeated line below Mr. Myer’s singing.

John Harbison is a master of “classicizing” pop music, and his opening “Ain’t Goin’ to Study War No Mo’”, a.k.a. “Down by the Riverside” was simple and lovely, (though hardly competition for Fredric Rzewski’s classic).

One song didn’t have a chance. Think “Deep River”, and you think Paul Robson. Others, like Stephen Danber’s “Wade in the Water”, was anachronistically bluesy. Instead of individual songs with applause between each one, I would have loved a segue making it a real suite. But as a whole, this was an impressive collection.

The second half was devoted to yet more simulated Americana. This, the rare complete version of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. My favorite of many versions of the ballet is the 13-voiced original setting, with its transparent counterpoint. But I was raised up on the Suite, which still is exciting.

The latter ends with the “Gift to be simple” variations, but in the complete version, before the grand finale, Copland added some “non-essential” (in the composer’s words) music, which is exactly the way it sounded here. More quiet atmosphere, more canons and up-and-down single notes played by different instruments.

But David Alan Miller is a convincing conductor, energetic on the podium, with rhythms just a tad quicker than usual, so this was a painless seven-minute addition. His first chair players, so essential for Copland, were technically excellent, but the Albany Symphony lacks that effortless tapestry cohesion which separates great orchestras from excellent orchestras.

Yet one still must commend the Albany Symphony for presenting such an innovative all-American program. One doubts that the Albany Symphony would be music to Boss Tweed’s jaundiced, but he (like the rest of us) might well have alleviated his ill-mannered Albany altercations.

Harry Rolnick



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