American Composers Orchestra casts a widely traveled net at Zankel Hall

Fri Apr 12, 2019 at 2:24 pm
American Composers Orchestra, 04/11/2019

“Where We Lost Our Shadows” by Du Yun and Khaled Jarrar was performed Thursday night at Zankel Hall by the American Composers Orchestra, conducted by George Manahan. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

For all of its aspirations to be the home team of American orchestral music, the American Composers Orchestra gave a program Thursday night in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall that had a “strangers in a strange land” theme running through it.

The orchestra’s artistic director, composer-clarinetist Derek Bermel, acknowledged as much during an onstage interview with creators and performers of the evening’s featured work, which gave its title to the whole program: Where We Lost Our Shadows by the Shanghai-born American composer Du Yun and Palestinian filmmaker Khaled Jarrar.

The multimedia evocation of human migration, composed this year with a joint commission from Carnegie Hall, the ACO, the Kennedy Center, London’s Southbank Centre and Cal Performances, was receiving its New York premiere Thursday.

Preceding it were Turfan Fragments by Morton Feldman and Symphony No. 1, “Music on Open Strings,” by Gloria Coates. 

Feldman’s 1980 piece was inspired by archaeological finds along the Silk Road—an ancient route more of trade than of migration, but still a story of people on the move in search of opportunity. Feldman, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, saw America as a land where he could create his own avant-garde style, unbeholden to European serialist orthodoxy.

In contrast, Gloria Coates made the long journey from her native Wausau, Wisconsin to Krakow, Poland—via studies in Chicago, Louisiana, and New York—in order to hear her Symphony No. 1 performed for the first time in 1971. Her land of opportunity has been Europe, where she has lived most of the time in Germany since that premiere, and composed 16 symphonies, ten string quartets, a chamber opera, and much else.

The title of Feldman’s piece—for double woodwinds and brass, and lower strings (no violins)–refers to shreds of knotted carpet, some dating back to the third century, that were unearthed in the early 20th century, demonstrating how ancient the carpet-making craft was in Asia Minor. Since musical process was a particular preoccupation for Feldman, the composer was reminded of the historical connections between textile manufacturing, computing, and musical patterns.

The modest-sounding Turfan Fragments, which rarely rose above a volume of mezzo forte, didn’t strike the ear Thursday as particularly knotty or intricately patterned, but the pitches of its minimalistic repeated phrases were tightly bunched at first, microtonal even, punctuated by staccato cluster chords. As the texture opened up, Feldman avoided any impression of complexity, introducing new motives one at a time and elaborating them by repetition and overlapping.

On the podium, George Manahan beat time clearly in ever-changing meters, holding his troops together in a well-knit (so to speak) performance. Taking his bow after the 17-minute piece, the conductor smiled and made a brow-wiping gesture.

For her first symphony, Coates—who was in attendance Thursday—set herself the task of composing for open strings only, no “stopping” with the left hand to make individual notes and fill out the scale. That didn’t mean not touching the strings at all—in fact, Coates availed herself of every bowing trick in the book from harmonics and ponticello to loosening the bow hair, and all sorts of manipulations including regular and snap pizzicato, drumming on the instruments’ bodies, little “meow” glissandos and great slithery slides. Under Manahan’s vigorous direction, the players seemed to execute it all with relish.

Furthermore, Coates had the players tune their instruments to make a gappy, vaguely Asian pentatonic scale, which determined the shape of the bold, disjunct theme that rang out in octaves at the start, then underwent colorful variations. The Scherzo moved a little faster, characterized by abundant pizzicato and quick upward slides.

The third movement’s title, “Scordatura,” means literally “mistuning,” but here Coates did the opposite, having the players return the instruments to their traditional tuning in fifths even as they played a canon-style passage. Gradually, the familiar sound of an open-strings tune-up filled the room. The finale, “Refracted Mirror Canons for Fourteen Lines,” was a thicket of glissandos, up and down, narrow as a sigh and wide as a siren. The robust sound of unstopped strings now took center stage, closing this novel symphony with a crescendo and a big, shining chord of open fifths.

Where We Lost Our Shadows, a continuous piece lasting about half an hour, combined Jarrar’s video footage of a journey toward Europe by a group of Syrian refugees with passionate ragas sung by Ali Sethi and Helga Davis, explosive percussion cadenzas by Shayna Dunkelman, and an orchestra that alternately simmered with anxiety and roared with rage.

Visual props consisting of shiny, Mylar-like film stretched over two-foot hoops, which made a faint whooshing sound when shaken, were held up a few at a time, and en masse at the end, as if to tell the audience to look in the mirror if they wanted to see what migrants were like.

Jarrar’s video included lots of POV scenes inside claustrophobic tents and tunnels, and particularly running across open fields at night, everything dark except a few lights on the horizon, bobbing around crazily in the camera’s lens.

At one point, Jarrar stopped a Germany-bound family from Syria to chat. The immaculately-dressed mom and her bright-eyed kids looked as though they were headed for a day at Disneyland—until she mentioned, matter-of-factly, the war and likely death they were leaving behind.

The male-female singing duo of Sethi and Davis, with a touch of electronic amplification and reverb, intertwined their clear voices in raga patterns and styles that, according to the program notes, migrated from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East centuries ago. Sethi also affectingly sang a setting of “Pillow,” a short poem by Ghassan Zaqtan (ending with the line “And Mom/if war breaks out say he’s taking a rest”).

Conductor Manahan managed it all resourcefully, the orchestra asserting itself powerfully at times and supporting singers or video images at others. At one point, even the percussion virtuosa Dunkelman contributed to the collaborative ethos by duetting effectively across the stage with orchestral percussionist Jim Saporito. If nothing else, this half-hour slice of the migrant experience that held up mirrors at the end showed that we are, indeed, all in this together.

Carnegie Hall presents The English Concert directed by Harry Bicket in a concert performance of Handel’s Semele 2 p.m. Sunday. carnegiehall.org; 212-247-7800.

 


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