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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Concert Review: Five Composers at the Frontier

George Manahan

The American Composers Orchestra welcomed George Manahan as its new music director with this concert, featuring five modern works, two world premieres and two compositions that were played for the first time in New York. Throughout, Mr. Manahan's skilful direction reminded the audience that new music and modern music is nothing for the listener to be afraid of. 

The Light Within by John Luther Adams  is built upon a series of shifting, glacial chords that move slowly and develop. The orchestra plays continuously, working out the musical ideas as tiny fragments of melody that coalesce into shimmering walls of ice. The crescendo chord is accompanied by a glow of blue and green lights, drawing the listener deep into Mr. Adams' conception, before drowning the listener in sound. Mr. Manahan's experience on the podium kept this seemingly implacable piece of music moving forward at an inexorable rate.

Neither Spell Nor Charm by Jacob Druckman is based on the lullaby from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The work is not lulling or soothing. Druckman's use of woodwinds and spiky melodies recalls early Stravinsky, and the repeated shifts in mood draw the listener into the sonic world of the piece.

Lonely Child by Claude Vivier featured soprano Susan Narucki singing the French text against a complex orchestral background that builds chords homophonically, rather like music of the early Renaissance. The work's second secton features a gorgeous, shimmering series of bitonal chords. Ms. Narucki produced stopped sounds, ululating, and a wordless narrative duplicating a child's speech patterns, interrupted by muffled thumps on a bass drum and the chime of tubular bells.

From The Other Sky by Wang Jie uses astrology, costumed singers and PowerPoint to create a multi-media experienced based on the Chinese Zodiac. Ms. Wang (who played the keyboard parts as well) tells the story of Lark (soprano Emily Hindrichs) and her effort to become the 13th member of the Zodiac Palace. The work uses voice, keyboards and the orchestra to build complex sound worlds for the celestial realm of the Gods and the earthly suffering of mankind. Ms. Wang's rich, fully developed music turned an abstract myth into a fulfilling experience. 

The evening ended with BluesKonzert by Alvin Singleton. This is a one-movement concerto. Not a straight blues, but more of an exercise in mode and minimalism which requires great piano technique.  Soloist Ursula Oppens made a welcome return to the American Composers Orchestra, displaying formidable technique as she coped with the staccato figures, glissando runs and trills written into the score.

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