New works stand out in American Composers Orchestra’s 40th anniversary program

Wed Nov 08, 2017 at 2:20 pm
Music of Paola Prestini was performed at the American Composers Orchestra concert Tuesday night at the Rose Auditorium

Music of Paola Prestini was performed at the American Composers Orchestra concert Tuesday night at the Rose Auditorium

There was a bit of a box-checking feel to the American Composers Orchestra’s Tuesday gala in the Rose Auditorium: a nod to the founder, a nod to a donor, a nod to the Bernstein centenary.

To some extent, that’s to be expected at a big anniversary concert: for forty years, the ACO has been doing yeoman work in promoting music by American composers, in an environment that skews overwhelmingly European, in tastes both classical and contemporary.

The ACO is not the most polished orchestra, so certain qualities we take for granted with other ensembles, such as a fullness of sound or total synchronization, were generally lacking. Even in Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige, which showed an admirable swagger under the baton of conductor laureate Dennis Russell Davies, the strings rarely rose to meet the power of the brass. Similar was Sid Ramin’s 1994 transcription of Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata—led by music director George Manahan (who split conducting duties with Davies on Tuesday), the ACO struggled to follow Derek Bermel, who played the solo part with sensual flair.

More successful was a trio of standards from the great American songbook: it was a pleasure to hear soprano Mikaela Bennett give clear, feeling renditions of Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” and Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” that precisely captured the musical idiom without overloading the vocal line with pop-singer scoops. A deliciously sultry—then cheeky—rendition of Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” provided a perfect contrast to the warm sentiment of the other two, and showed an excellent big-band glare from the orchestra.

The most rewarding portion of the program—and in a way the most in line with the organization’s mission—was a pair of U.S. premieres by young American composers.

Elizabeth Ogonek shows a rich imagination in Sleep and Unremembrance, a ten-minute tone poem. Without that title, the piece’s icy wanderings would surely be harder to grasp, but the thought of the piece as a representation of a sleep cycle was intriguing. The first half is cloaked in darkness, with winds fluttering above cold brass and glossy strings, hanging together but hard to make sense of, much like the internal logic of a strange dream. At last clarifying strings and woodwinds, accompanied by the toll of a bell, give the slightly dazed calm of first awakening.

From Paola Prestini we heard a prelude and aria from her opera Gilgamesh. A daring opening, with hard strings biting on a semitone, builds into climbing waves of strings, creating drama and establishing a musical language to use throughout the piece. The vocal part was sung by Jakub Józef Orliński, a promising countertenor with a powerful, direct instrument that can shift between mixed voice and full falsetto without revealing a seam. In this as in all of her work, Prestini shows a strong compositional voice and an arresting focus in her writing: vigorous melodic lines grab the listener, supported by tart harmonies. At this point, she has to be considered a major talent.

The evening opened with a slightly eerie burst of recorded applause, followed by an address to the audience: “Our concert programs are still dominated by the great works of the past. We don’t want to stop anyone performing the great works of the past, we just want to get in on it.”

That quip was revealed to be by Aaron Copland, at the inaugural concert of the ACO forty years ago. As Davies conceded in his remarks before Black, Brown & Beige, Copland’s observation still rings mostly true today. American music for American audiences has always been an uphill battle, but it’s reassuring to see an organization dedicated to that fight for so long is still in the trenches.

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