Orchestra Underground: Mystics and Magic [American Composers Orchestra]

John Luther Adams
The Light Within [world premiere]
Nor Spell Nor Charm
Lonely Child [New York premiere]
Wang Jie
From the Other Sky [world premiere]
BluesKonzert [New York premiere]

Susan Narucki (soprano) [Vivier]

Emily Hindrichs (soprano), Krysty Swann (mezzo-soprano), Hugh Sinclair (actor & director) & Wang Jie (keyboards) [Wang Jie]

Ursula Oppens (piano)

American Composers Orchestra
George Manahan

Ji Youn Chang – Lighting designer [John Luther Adams]

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 15 October, 2010
Venue: Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City

George Manahan. Photograph: Richard BowditchGeorge Manahan made a strong impression in his first concert as music director of the American Composers Orchestra, opening its 34th-season with a program of stylistically varied works whose subjects touch on manifestations of the spiritual and mystical in the natural world.

John Luther Adams grew up in the south, studied in California, and has spent most of his adult life in Alaska. His music is often strong on color and character, but The Light Within caught me off guard. Timing in at about 11 minutes, the work is a single gesture: a loud, sustained, nearly tutti chord/tone cluster running the full pitch range of the orchestra which slowly transforms as pitches and tone colors are introduced and removed. The lighting design didn’t seem to bring much to the music until the last few minutes, but by then the work had worn out its welcome. The experience might go over far better in a more reverberant, warmer space, where its moderate similarities to Feldman and Ligeti would prove more welcome.

Jacob Druckman’s Nor Spell Nor Charm takes its title from the text of a song on a text from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Druckman had written over two decades earlier for Jan DeGaetani, one of the great champions of American vocal music who, sadly, died of leukaemia before she could perform it. Nor Spell Nor Charm is an orchestral elaboration of the song, and includes a synthesizer, its often bright, scintillating gestures contrast with the mostly solemn mood of the orchestra. George Manahan and his players brought more solemnity, coherence, and restraint to the work than did the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in its often edgy, meandering recording for Deutsche Grammophon.

Canadian composer Claude Vivier studied at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec and in Cologne with Stockhausen. His shocking murder in Paris in 1983 made the headlines. The composer described his extended orchestral song Lonely Child, written in 1980, as one of loneliness, but the text, filled with references to stars, nature, fairies, dreams, and childhood suit the music – set to timbral transformations influenced by the French ‘spectral’ school and a highly approachable harmonic language reminiscent of Messiaen and, toward the end, late Shostakovich. Susan Narucki fully lived up to her reputation as a first-rank interpreter of contemporary vocal music, bringing the mostly-French text to palpable life. There were moments when the orchestra should have been on a tighter dynamic rein, but not to the point where Narucki could not be heard.

Wang Jie’s From the Other Sky is far more fun than one is supposed to have at a concert of ‘serious’ music. This charming multimedia-comic-opera-meets-song-cycle in four scenes was presented in a semi-staged version with computer-controlled background projections. The completely original story by the composer is based on characters from the Chinese zodiac – but not all of them on this occasion because, as we learn in the first scene, some of them are out for pedicures or Pilates – and how the thirteenth Zodiac goddess, a lark, loses her place in the heavenly firmament and finds favor on earth. Emily Hendricks has a light voice, but with plenty of power where it counts, and was completely winning in the role of the bird. Krysty Swann was properly imperious as the celestial Rat, and used her warm mezzo to strong effect in the second scene as a cripple in a plague-infested world. Wang Jie (who was also costumed and a part of the dramatic action) is a solid pianist – and quite the character. The music, written in a completely approachable style, perfectly suits the story’s fairytale-with-a-modern-twist mood. I can’t wait to hear more of Wang Jie’s music.

Alvin Singleton’s BluesKonzert was written for Ursula Oppens in memory of jazz composer and saxophonist Julius Hemphill, her long-time companion. Oppens lived up to her reputation as one of the greatest champions of new music, getting to the often-conflicted emotional core of this mostly elegiac concerto, which opens with a cadenza in which a mournful descending two-note motive and assertive, manic staccato figures vie for attention. The work’s rhapsodic form reflects the continuing collision of moods, with the solemn and funereal often colliding with or suddenly in contrasting counterpoint to music that is declamatory and assertive. Oppens elicited amazingly even sound and a surprising variety of timbres from the extended trills and tremolos that dominate the latter part of the work, and the balances between soloist and orchestra were ideal. BluesKonzert is the best new concertante piano work I have heard in a very long time from an American composer.

The ACO has always sounded good, but throughout this concert the playing was particularly impressive – displaying tight ensemble, vivid instrumental color, and string sound that seems far bigger (if a hair bass-shy) than the use of 21 players would suggest.

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