Review: American Composers’ Orchestra concert pays invigorating tribute
In an ideal musical world, there would be no need for an orchestra dedicated to performing new and recent works by American composers. This mission would be crucial for any American orchestra.
But we don’t live in an ideal musical world. The repertoire of most major American ensembles has long been dominated by European masterpieces. In the 1970s, visionary American composer Francis Thorne decided to do something about this imbalance. He directed the creation of the American Composers Orchestra, singularly focused on the commissioning, defense and performance of contemporary American composers. This essential ensemble, now in its 40th season, gave a concert on Friday at Zankel Hall, a typically invigorating program with three premieres and Steve Reich’s “Tehillim”, a landmark 1981 work for four female singers and orchestra.
Sadly, Mr. Thorne passed away on March 7 at the age of 94. Friday’s concert was dedicated to his memory, and several attendees, including Edward Yim, the orchestra’s new president, paid tribute to him. Officially, Mr. Thorne was one of a small group of musicians who founded this orchestra. But in a statement, conductor Dennis Russell Davies wrote that while he’s happy to be credited as a co-founder, in all fairness it was “all Franny”.
Defending American composers was a driving mission for Mr. Thorne, and his ensemble had an important function. Yet he was a musical adventurer (and gifted jazz pianist) who believed that concerts of contemporary American music could be exciting and popular. He would have been delighted if the American Composers concert on Friday, conducted by George Manahan, was sold out.
Mr. Thorne’s own works reflect his broad musical interests, such as his Piano Concerto No. 3 (1989), which fuses neo-classical and modernist elements with touches of jazz. From the start, his orchestra has trained composers of all styles and ages. Friday’s program certainly achieved those goals, offering four diverse works by composers ranging from 27-year-old David Hertzberg to Mr. Reich, whose 80th birthday is being celebrated at Carnegie Hall and beyond this season.
Speaking to Mr Yim on stage ahead of the premiere of his alluring Chamber Symphony, Mr Hertzberg said this one-movement work presents a series of contrasting ideas, almost as if different composers are talking to each other through perspectives. . The piece begins with seemingly separate statements, with pauses in between: a pastoral-sounding mini-episode with a menacing cello line lurking below; high harmonies sustained and animated with undulating flights of the piano; an episode of outbursts of staggered drums; a haze of dense and piercing dissonant chords; and more. Over time the music tries to find commonalities among the contrasts, culminating in an ecstatic and slightly crazy climax that sounded like the Messiaen of modern times.
Composer Paola Prestini has often collaborated on multimedia works, including this short story, “The Hotel That Time Forgot”. The piece was inspired when she read the story of the Palmyra Hotel, open since 1874 in a Lebanese town near the border with Syria. A mysterious 10-minute video by artist Mami Kosemura, made in a townhouse living room, is said to represent a room from the Palmyra. Ms. Prestini’s music conveys surreal visuals through gently repetitive figures, disparately overlapping lines, and fluid, slippery harmonies.
Trevor Weston, the composer of the third premiere, told audiences that throughout his childhood in New York he was captivated by the stories of flying fish told by those close to him in Barbados. “Flying Fish”, his 15-minute work, pays homage to the African roots of Bajan (Barbadian) culture, he explained. With swaying riffs, cheerful percussion and episodes of boundless energy, the music certainly suggested wonderful aquatic feats. I was particularly touched, however, by a prolonged, slower and quizzical episode with pensive strings and plaintive chords.
In the 30-minute “Tehilim”, M. Reich sets up four Hebrew psalms on long strands of interwoven vocal lines, which unfold to continually inventive music for strings, winds, two organs and various percussions. He received a stunning performance on That Bittersweet Night for the American Composers Orchestra.