American Composers Orchestra/George Manahan – 21st Firsts – Five World Premieres in New York

Christopher Stark
…and start west
Andreia Pinto-Correia
Elegia a Al-Mu’tamid
Alex Temple
Liebeslied for Female Voice, Electronics, and Orchestra
Wang Lu
Flowing Water Study II for Orchestra and Video
Kenji Bunch
The Devil’s Box

[All world premieres]

Melissa Hughes (soprano & electronics)

Daniel Iglesia (videographer)

Kenji Bunch (viola)

American Composers Orchestra
George Manahan

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 14 October, 2011
Venue: Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City

George Manahan. Photograph: Richard BowditchThe American Composers Orchestra opened its 2011-12 season with five world premieres, and while the works themselves were a very mixed bag, one could not help but be impressed by the solid and committed playing under the direction of the enormously underrated George Manahan, who must have one of the largest repertoires of any conductor. This concert was also the kick-off of “SONIC: Sounds of a New Century” – a festival of 14 concerts throughout New York City, showcasing new works by young (40 or under) composers.

Christopher Stark’s …and start west is an aural travelogue across America. The opening sections, reminiscent of urban film noir soundtrack music, were alive with hard-hitting rhythm and harmonic muscle, and were more immediately appealing than the placid, almost static, music that followed. I was nonetheless left with a desire to hear this work again.

Andreia Pinto-Correia composed Elegia a Al-Mu’tamid as an homage to an eleventh-century monarch. The work’s sustained harmonies, allusions to both Arabic and Iberian melody, and nuanced orchestration – particularly the rich sounds coming from instruments in the lower range – left me wishing that it had been about twice as long.

I was less impressed with the disparate, chameleonic stylistic transformations that made Alex Temple’s Liebeslied difficult to navigate. The banal text effectively catalyzed the frequent hairpin turns in mood and even genre, and Melissa Hughes steered the work’s jarring structure with aplomb and assurance. Her voice is terrific and I’d love to hear her in a cabaret setting. The computer manipulations created an ominous Greek chorus commentary.

Wang Lu’s multimedia Flowing Water Study II incorporated a visual element that was computer-generated in response to orchestral sonorities. Small black squares and circles were in constant motion against a white background, sometimes flowing in one direction or another, and sometimes exploding like a splash. Wang utilized a plethora of string sonorities over blocks of music built on pentatonic harmonies, creating appealing music in a state of continual transformation, yet confident of its direction.

Kenji Bunch’s The Devil’s Box is a full-fledged concerto for amplified viola, played here by the composer, which seems more suited to a pops concert than a program of new music. This is not a criticism, rather a recommendation to concert promoters looking for appealing new works. This barn-burner is tonal, widely varied in mood, and has a terrific showstopper of a finale. The title refers to the way in which some religious fundamentalists have viewed the violin – if you can play it well, you must be in league with the guy with the horns and pointy tail. Bunch has created a work that draws on gospel music, hymns, bluegrass, and the southern folk tradition to create a thoroughly American showpiece.

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