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Quintet For Orchestra

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
10/14/2011 -  
Orchestra Underground: 21st Firsts:
Christopher Stark: ...and start west (World Premiere, ACO/Paul Underwood commission)
Andreia Pinto-Correia: Elegia a Al-Mu’tamid (World Premiere, ACO/Patricia Wylde commission)
Alex Temple: Liebeslied for female voice, electronics, and chamber orchestra (World Premiere, ACO commission)
Wang Lu: Flowing Water Study II for orchestra and video (World Premiere, ACO/Jerome Foundation commission)
Kenji Bunch: The Devil’s Box (World Premiere, commissioned by Mary Rodgers Guettel)

Kenji Bunch (Amplified viola), Mellissa Hughes (Soprano and Electronics), Daniel Iglesia (Videographics)
American Composers Orchestra (ACO), George Manahan (Music director and Conductor)

G. Manahan (© Richard Bowditch)

I don’t know if Guinness would be interested, but these next fourteen days in the “Sonic Sounds of a New Century” is going to present no less than 100 composers in 120 works, with 20 world premieres. More important, these concerts will be presented all over New York City. This page hardly has room for the all the events, but www.sonicfestival.org should give the tantalizing details.

Nor does this writer have time to visit all the concerts. But the opening last night in Zankel Hall gave a good indication of the diversity that the Festival should present. The five young composers are each highly skilled in orchestral writing, each have a unique musical language, and at least two of the pieces I found worth more than a single hearing.

Doing the honors was the American Composers Orchestra (ACO) conductor George Manahan, and though he seems an excellent leader, his musicians were more than adequate to handle their diverse chores.

The first work, while deftly composed, while easily splashing his orchestral palette, was most derivative. Christopher Stark’s ...and start west had three movements depicting New York, Prairie States atmosphere (which sounded more like the factories) and finally a less than grandiose emergence of the Rockies. It was good listening, resembling a dissonant Ferde Grofé. Still, Mr. Sharp was the only composer who didn’t need quotes from other periods, other music to make his points.

With a deep personal love of Islamic history, Iberian-Arabic music and Morocco itself, I was highly anticipating the Portuguese composer Andreia Pinto-Correia and her elegy for the 11th Century poet-musician-king Al-Mu’tamid. And indeed, she did quote, throughout the ten-minute work, many of the phrases which make this music, when heard today, so evocative of Middle Eastern history.

The music was indeed redolent of urban Arabic life, the Arab phrases peeping through the orchestral atmospheres. For some reason, it didn’t reach me. For some reason, I still feel that five or six bars of Maurice Ravel’s Shéhérazade catches more of the echoes, the resonances of Medieval times.

Then again, Ms Pinto-Correia was writing an elegy for one person, not to writing a travelogue. Her aims were noble, and her picture was perhaps the only one to do justice to that artist.

W. Lu (© Courtesy of the Artist)

Another bit of exotica was produced with great success, thanks partly to an abstract video (along with attempts at ersatz Chinese calligraphy) by Daniel Iglesia. Xi’an-born Wang Lu has been highly successful since coming to Columbia University, with a fecund imagination and an original way of dealing with Chinese music.

The usual method is to take a folk song and decorate it with twirls and trills, and when living in Hong Kong I could predict exactly how this would sound. Wang Lu did use a qin (the Chinese zither) in the orchestra, but it was subdued by other instruments. And instead of imitating a folk song, her work was like Webern’s orchestration of Bach, with each note played by a different instrument, with phrases out of place, notes hidden and then making sudden appearances.

Granted, the video, literally synched with the notes, was so domiannt that it was difficuolt not to be distracted. In fact (and no insult to Mr. Iglesia), I would love to hear it on its own, for so many effects, so much muted color was produced that I felt it needed visuals.

K. Bunch, C.T. Pitbull (© Erico Lyn)

To me, any composer whose official picture is with his dog is worthy, no matter what the music. But Seattle-born Kenji Bunch, like Paul Hindemith, is as famed as violist and composer. In The Devil’s Box, he combined the two.

It was a great idea, to demystify the fiddle, and the four movements were as brilliant as anything I heard last night. Starting with an offbeat playing of a Stephen Foster hymn, à la Charles Ives, continuing with an eclectic folk dance, with out-of-tune viola, pizzicato hijinks, fierce orchestral playing, the piece segued into what he calls “a lament by the instrument.”

That lament was a beautiful elegy. Except for a few bars, Samuel Barber at his most romantic could have composed it. But Kenji Bunch both wrote and played it in his own eloquence. The finale was hoedown, jazz, a bit of rock, and all celebration, and well worthy of the standing ovation.

And now to my own favorite work, Alex Temple’s Liebeslied for female voice, electronics and orchestra. After a few orchestral measures, soprano Mellissa Hughes launched into an original tune, but one that could have come from any expensive MGM (or inexpensive Warner Brothers) movie of the 1950’s. The song could have been sung by Jo Stafford or Judy Garland or a dozen other recording artists.

Then the song took a twist. The orchestra took a more sinister twist, and Ms Hughes, instead of singing, launched into a revery–an absolutely appropriate revery–as if the maudlin words of the song, penned by clever studio immigrants who had gone from the Lower East Side to the money-pits of Hollywood took a life of their own.

Not the music so much as Ms. Temple’s idea, that the most mundane pop tunes–I Only Have Eyes For You, Laura, Some Enchanted Evening–have a shadowy underground meaning.

Perhaps this doesn’t establish Ms. Temple’s credentials yet as a major composer, but her originality, her fearless language and the perambulations into hidden paths, makes her a genuinely original voice.

Harry Rolnick



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