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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Concert Review: Goin' South

The American Composers Orchestra ends its subscription season with Border Vanguards.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Flyer for Border Vanguards, last Friday's concert at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, featuring
the singer Luciana Souza (center.) Art © 2014 American Composers Orchestra.

The American Composers Orchestra is dedicated to the performance of modern music. Under the leadership of former New York City Opera music director George Manahan it remains a crack collection of players who conduct fearless exploration of fresh musical terrain. Last Friday night, the ensemble ended its 2013-14 Orchestra Underground subscription series at Carnegie Hall's downstairs performance space Zankel Hall with Border Vanguards The program explored music from five composers. With two rarities and three premieres, this was an exciting evening laced with exotic sounds and rare percussion instruments.


The concert opened with the Carnegie premiere of Alcancías, by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. The title (according to the program notes) is a Spanish word with multiple meanings: "piggy banks," "expanding bullets" and…"brothel keepers." The three movements were full of potent dance rhythms and an earthy charm, reminding one of the picturesque Roman works of Ottorino Respighi. Revueltas' clever, often vigorous orchestration made the mid-sized ensemble sound much larger in the bright confines of Zankel Hall, creating a powerful climax at the end of the third movement.

The next work on the program was introduced by a short documentary film, featuring composer Marcos Balter talking about his new work Favela. This little movie featured interviews with Mr. Balter and footage of the young Brazilian composer riding the Roosevelt Island Tramway and taking in the cityscape of Manhattan and Roosevelt Island as his voice-over discussed the inspiration provided by the favelas, or shanty towns that form large parts of the cities in his native country.


In Favela, Mr. Balter divides the orchestra into small cells of two or three instruments each, building bridges of notes between them much like the cracked sidewalks or dirt roads that course through Brazil's shanty towns. Indeed, listening to this exotic blend of woodwind, strings and percussion was like a journey through a questionable, possibly dangerous neighborhood at night, with the sounds coming as if from the windows of the houses. It was potent and mysterious, a thrilling experience that left the listener with a profound sense of disquiet.

That paranoia was endemic to Manchay Tiempo by composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Of Peruvian descent, Ms. Frank's work and that country's own history with the Sendero Luminoso ("Shining Path") a Maoist terrorist group who were notable for their bloody deeds. A hybrid of Spanish and Quechua (the language spoken by Peruvians descended from the Incas), the title means "Time of Fear." And fear was very much present in the skittering strings and tone-clusters that simultaneously invaded the ear and set the listener's teeth on edge. This is a evocative, ambitious work by this bright young composer, a little nightmare music.

The second half started with Contours by the respected jazz composer Gunther Schuller. Mr. Schuller is the inventor of the term "Third Stream", to describe the merging of European classical influence and American jazz. However. Contours, an ambitious 20 minute work which was first heard at Carnegie Hall in 1975, falls into his earlier style in which the composer fell in with atonalists and serialists from the mid-1950s. It is a suite with few jazz elements and clashing, atonal ideas that carry little charm, although the energetic leadership of Mr. Manahan did much to carry the message across.

The last work on the program was the world premiere of Derek Bermel's Mar de Setembro, which set a collection of poems by Eugènio di Andrade against a lush. sensual orchestration. The music mixed classical, jazz and bossa nova to seductive effect. Sung in Portuguese by the sultry, throaty voice of award-winning vocalist Luciana Souza, this provided a much-needed tonal antidote to what had gone before. Mr. Bermel's work incorporated the voice with Western instruments and exotic percussion, opening with a keening figure for nail violin that served as the work's leading motif. By turns playful, sultry, comic and erotic, these five songs served as the perfect conclusion to a challenging evening of modern music.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.