Music director David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony Orchestra have made a virtue out of performing lots of new little works by emerging composers. Eager for the opportunity, the youngsters gladly take the modest commissions and write under tight deadlines. The results are usually diverting and forgettable.
A substantial new three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation has allowed the ASO to start bringing in some heavier guns. Next year John Corigliano will be on hand twice and this past week John Harbison was in town for the first of two springtime visits.
In Friday night’s program at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, titled “John Harbison & Friends,” the 71-year old composer’s Symphony No. 4 stood tall alongside works of Copland and Haydn. Cast in five moments and lasting about half an hour, it was substantial, rich and assured.
Though prone to thick and dark orchestral textures, Harbison also has a keen dramatic flair. A heavy sound dominated the opening movement and yet its constant rhythmic pulse skipped around like a child in a meadow. A similar contrast came in the intermezzo, which alternated between gliding strings and light percussion.
The symphony elicited a fine performance especially from the expanded string choir, which was both supple and meaty. The work is being recorded for release with Harbison’s “Great Gatsby” Suite, coming up in May.
Twenty-five year old composer Timothy Andres introduced his new piece “Look Around You” as a “double concerto but for only one player.” Soloist Owen Dalby performed on both violin and viola, though somehow there didn’t seem to be that much difference in sound or character between the two instruments. For long stretches Andres had the orchestra simply sustain chords. Except for a few exposed figures for violin that brought to mind a country fiddle, the solo writing was busy yet indistinct, something like treading water.
Let it not be said that young composers should be written off. Copland was 25 when he wrote “Music for the Theatre,” the charming masterwork that opened the program. The woodwinds and brass delivered with appropriate sass, though there were occasional smudges of the larger ensemble in the trickier rhythmic passages.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 82 “The Bear” arrived at the evening’s conclusion like a cool fresh breeze. During the gently shifting currents of the Allegretto, Harbison’s more forceful play with textures and accents came to mind.
The avant garde is alive and well. Helmut Lachenmann came to town to prove it.
On Saturday night at EMPAC, a retrospective concert of music by the 74-year old German composer included a couple of solo works, a string quartet and a nearly half-hour long piece for 24 players. Yet what the evening mostly consisted of was delicate and explosive sounds produced by weird instrumental techniques.
It’s a language that most American composers retreated from about 25 years ago, something like timid Democratic politicians trying to be popular and conservative. Yet in Europe, liberalism — with music, as well as policy — is no vice. Interestingly, it was young American musicians who performed the entire concert, always with seriousness and passion.
Most everything the program had in store was revealed in the short opening work, “Pression” from 1969. Cellist Lauren Radnofsky’s first sounds were of her fingers sliding up and down the strings. Once her bow was utilized, she held it tight with two hands and dragged it upward toward the neck.
The String Quartet No. 2 (1989), played with delicacy and poise by the Jack Quartet, goes further with all manner of effects, including bowing on the edge of the instruments, tapping the strings with the butt of the bow, and strumming with guitar picks. In this piece, Lachenmann wasn’t so hyperactive with form. Instead of rapidly jumping from one sound world to the next, he lingered long enough to allow the novelty of an effect to wear off and its acoustic properties to settle in the ear and the mind. The few times a full-bodied chord arrived, it made one realize what a luxurious bath of sound typical concerts really are.
The composer himself performed “Ein Kinderspiel,” a set of seven character pieces for piano. Like the children’s pieces of Bartok, these were intimate distillations of a mature style, sprinkled with syncopated rhythms and playful tone painting.
After intermission Bradley Lubman led the Signal Ensemble in “…Zwei Gefuhle,” which had the composer reciting a bit of da Vinci’s journal over the rumblings and bursting sounds of a large ensemble. By this point, things felt pretty over wrought, especially when the musicians started having verbal outbursts.
One couldn’t help but keep an eye on the grand piano. Shortly into the piece, there was one player toiling at the keyboard but another with a firm grip on the lid – suggesting it wound be slammed down at any moment. Instead, it was rapidly swung opened and closed, causing huge waves of sound.
The statistics aren’t available, but it’s probably a fair estimate that the Debussy String Quartet has been performed at least a dozen times in the 38-year history of the Union College Concert Series. It’s also no exaggeration to say that it never sounded the way it did Sunday afternoon when it was performed by the ensemble known as Brooklyn Rider.
The young male players, who are regulars with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, attacked the music with an urgency and gusto, not the reverent embrace that French impressionism usually gets. Yet it wasn’t really the performance that made Debussy’s 1893 piece seem so new and fresh. The context within the concert is what did the trick.
Instead of highlighting the novelty of a familiar work by playing it at the end of a historical progression, the Brooklyn Rider went backward in time. Everything else on the program was written in the last decade, except a John Cage piece from 1948.
First up was “Achille’s Heel” by 31-year old Colin Jacobsen, one of the Brooklyn Rider’s violinists. It was a young musician’s stream of consciousness, an amalgam of country, blue grass, rock and jazz with lots of flashy string licks.
“…al niente” (to nothing) by Uzbekistan composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky had a bit more going on than its title implies. Like cracks in a picture window, a pervasive haze of sound was splintered over and again by harsh jagged lines from the solo strings.
The program note for Italian composer Giovanni Sollima’s “Federico II” suggested it would evoke the medieval court of the Italian ruler. But the music actually occupied similar ground to Jacobsen’s piece. There was the same steady pulse, though with a bit more melody from folk-like tunes.
After intermission came Cage’s piano work “In a Landscape,” in a beautiful arrangement by Justin Messina. The players passed back and forth short melodic runs for a lush and tuneful meditation.
Each piece in this odd batch settled comfortably into its own groove. Call it “solid state” music, if you like. It would be easy to say that rock and minimalism fostered the Brooklyn Rider’s taste for such fare. But then, along came the Debussy, which worked the same way. And Debussy got the idea from Indonesian gamelan music.
The faithful and discerning Union College audience acknowledged the music and fine players with enthusiasm. There was even a holler or two for the encore, Jacobsen’s lively arrangement of a Persian folk song called “Ascending Birds.”
Reviews originally appeared in the Times Union.