Luminism in Albany

L to R: conductor and music director of the Albany Symphony David Alan Miller, composers John Harbison, James Primosch, and Stacy Garrop

I’ve already blogged about my recent experience in Albany herehere and here, but am only now getting around to a word about how the May 22nd concert went. David Alan Miller, Albany Symphony music director, began the program with two new movements from Stacy Garrop’s planned Mythology Symphony. Her Becoming Medusa was performed by the Albany last fall (you can hear the performance here), and at David’s suggestion, she is adding additional movements to the piece. The new ones deal with The Sirens and The Fates. She has a handle on a big orchestral sound, with grand, vivid, even overpowering gestures (perhaps there is a Christopher Rouse influence here?). Both new pieces drive to huge climaxes; in the Fates movement, the peaks contrast with some eloquent (and beautifully played) solo cello writing. Stacy says she is planning a Pandora movement to round out the piece. It is a smart strategy to write independent pieces that can combine to make up a grander vision – think of George Tsontakis’s T.S. Eliot piecesRouse’s Phantasmata; Carter’s big Symphonia; and Augusta Read Thomas’s Helios Choros ballet tryptich (go here and scroll down), worthy pieces all. Or at least it seems like a smart strategy. The problem is to get the entire set performed as a unit. This partly has to do with the problem of the second performance that I wrote about here; but it also has to do with the unavailability of a 40 minute slot for a new piece on an orchestral concert.

The best thing about the next piece on the program, a percussion concerto by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, was the commanding performance by soloist Colin Currie, who is perhaps best known for his performances and recording of Jennifer Higdon’s Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto. I found the Rautavarra rather square and unimaginative. It is saying something when the most interesting composing in a concerto is the cadenza which has been written not by the composer, but by the soloist! Currie is a remarkable virtuoso, and made as much as he could of the often stiffly constructed solo part. I hope to hear him in a more inspired work soon.

My own Luminism followed the intermission. (You can read my program note here.) Rather than try to describe it more, I’ll let you hear it for yourself when it becomes available on Instant Encore. For now, I’ll just report that David and the Albany did a fantastic job – David paced the piece beautifully, there was wonderful solo playing (thank you, horns, for the beautifully echoing nocturnal passage), and the full ensemble had power and precision.

The concert closed with a suite from John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby. Berg extracted a Lulu Suite from his opera, but he also planned a Lulu Symphony, and Harbison’s suite tends toward the symphonic in character. Although sometimes the transitions are abrupt, the piece is more than a simple stringing together of excerpts. There is something symphonic about the tension created when the 20s style pop tunes Harbison created are juxtaposed with the music for the story’s more dramatic moments. Both kinds of music share some of the same motivic material and it is as though that material is being developed in two different keys. With the music alone, Harbison is able to convey something of the expressive impact of the opera on this smaller canvas. Take the words and scenery out of many contemporary operas, and you will have mere background music. That’s not the case with Gatsby. There is an affecting drama deep in the music’s bones.

Apart from this symphonic drama, there is plenty of charm in the piece. The witty, expertly crafted 20s songs – foxtrots, a tango, and so forth – are played by a sort of cafe orchestra embedded in the larger ensemble. There are sometimes tiny hints of Ives when the pop songs collide with something else – for example, a very high, soft violin obligato played over one of the pop tunes feels like something from another world –  and I would have enjoyed more of that. Let’s hope this impressive suite inspires more productions of the opera itself.

It was a fantastic experience in Albany. David, let’s do it again soon!

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