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Friday, December 3, 2010

Concert Review: Urban Soundscapes with the American Composers Orchestra

The American Composers Orchestra presented its second concert of the 2010 season at Zankel Hall on Friday night under the skilled direction of George Manahan. The program: Orchestra Underground: A Time and Place offered a Charles Ives classic, aptly paired with four contemporary compositions offering very different slants on the urban experience.

The High Line Park, now with its own tone poem.
The concert opened with Ives' Central Park in the Dark. This ten-minute tone poem evokes New York a century ago, with shifting textures of strings depiciting the rustles and stillness of the park at night. Horn figures, woodwinds embody the occasional drunk passing by.

Duelling honky-tonk pianos provide repeated, almost humorous interruptions to the contemplative strings. George Manahan led a shimmering, impressionistic performance that captured the magic and mystery of New York's most famous greenspace.

Another green space motivated Ryan Francis' High Line, a ten-minute tone poem depicting the newly built park atop an abandoned industrial railroad track on the West Side of Manhattan. Mr. Francis made use of swelling, surging figures in the brass and atmospheric percussion and winds to create the sound of a sunny day atop the elevated park. It was a perfect match for the Ives piece.

Things moved onto a faster track with Black Diamond Train to Hell, a concerto for cello, samples and orchestra by Douglas J. Cuomo. Mr. Cuomo triggered the samples, taken from an old record of black Baptist preacher A.W. Dix proselytizing about the short track to sin and damnation. The work surged through a powerful first half, shot through with skilled commentary from cellist Maya Beiser. However, preacher, cellist and orchestra stalled in the slower second half. Finally, the piece rolled to a stop, deprived of its initial burst of energy.

Christopher Trapani was the featured soloist in his own work: Westering. He played an electric guitar armed with a "hexaphonic" pickup, allowing the sound of each string to be electronically separated, remixed and manipulated. The work was filtered through an array of speakers that moved the sound of soloist and orchestra around Zankel Hall. Mr. Trapani created a sweeping landscape, depicting the desire to explore the vast idea of America. Strings, wind and mandolin provided commentary on the westward journey, with the lead guitar providing atmospheric effects.

The concert concluded with The Fire at 4 a.m., a tone poem by Jerome Kizke. It veered between percussion and brass breaks. Mr. Kizke writes pentatonic passages that recalled Puccini, and a series of minor-key chord changes that evoked the romanticism of Antonín Dvořák. The piece started, stopped, and shifted, with the rhythm being tossed between three hard-working percussionists. The orchestra players  scat-sang and added vocalises even as they played. Finally, the work shifted into a long series of codas, and ultimately outstayed its welcome.

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