Simon, Reid works provide the highlights with American Composers Orchestra

Fri Mar 17, 2023 at 12:50 pm
Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers was performed by the American Composers Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Terrence Ragland

The American Composers Orchestra and guest conductor Daniela Candillari were in Zankel Hall Thursday night with a bifurcated program. In one sense, it was the typical orchestra concert, with short works leading to an intermission, followed by a large-scale piece. 

But Thursday night, the two halves were also widely different in style and purpose. That made for an uneven balance to the evening, but it also showed the range and possibilities of the ACO’s mission of putting the work of American composers on stage.

This night, those composers were Carlos Simon, Ellen Reid, and Carlos Bandera in the first half, and a world-premiere collaboration between Kaki King and D.J. Sparr, with video accompaniment, in the second. 

The opening work was Simon’s Fate Now Conquers, which has rapidly become a staple on concert programs, and deserves to be. His response to the Adagietto movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is full of drama and vitality—rather than rounding off a complete phrase, as Beethoven does, Simon’s music explodes the harmonic framework into a feeling of constant questing, eagerly sprinting into the unknown. Rhythms constantly push forward, phrases leap-frog each other, the energy is explosive.

That was the one slight flaw in this performance. The ACO sounded sharper and more focussed than usual under Candillari, but there was a moment after a rising brass passage where the air seemed to go out of the playing—but just for a moment; orchestra and conductor quickly got everything back on track.

Reid’s Floodplain (New York premiere) and Bandera’s Materia Prima (a world premiere) fit well together, following a similar shape though with different means. Both were pieces that came in waves and built a sensation of burgeoning events.

Floodplain was strongly cinematic, not like a set of music cues but in the sense of outlining a sequence of scenes. It also had intriguing sororities, combinations of harmony and orchestration, that recalled some of the film scores of 20th century American movies, especially David Raksin and his writing for the great noir Force of Evil. The music was full of intriguing details and skillful transitions, fluttering winds leading to slicing dissonances, then blunt, bracing passages. The orchestra’s performances was accurate and lovely.

There was perhaps one wave too many in Materia Prima, or too little contrast between the first one, which established Bandera’s goals and means—pushing chaos into order and back again—and the second one, which essentially repeated the first but without the novelty. Still, the music opened with one of the most immersive and elegant transitions from nothingness to complexity that one has heard, In the main the piece built the kind of metaphorical mountain that 19th century composers used to climb, and did so layer by satisfying layer, and culminated in a solid feeling of accomplishment and serenity.

King is a guitarist who makes instrumental music that lies in the fertile nexus where song forms and jazz and rock ideas meet. She has tremendous and innovative technique on the instrument, and Modern Yesterdays offered several of her guitar works from her album of the same title, orchestrated (and in one instance co-composed) by D.J. Sparr. One was excited to hear this resetting of her playing, with King taking the solo lead in front of the orchestra, but the results were frustrating.

The first piece, “Default Shell,” was full of activity and energy, but King pushed the tempo and Candillari and the orchestra could never quite find where she was. The feeling of mis-coordination distracted from the draw of hearing the original monochromatic sound of the guitar translated into woodwinds and brass, and Sparr’s use of those colors and the difference in articulation was imaginative.

But other than that imagination, and the pleasure of King’s own playing, there was too little to the overall work, the sense of resources ignored or wasted. The arrangements were limited to the form of the originals, and after “Default Shell,” there was little additional orchestration ideas. The video by Attilio Rigotti and Orsolya Szantho was nicely projected right onto the body of King’s guitar, but the images themselves were clichéd and ordinary: waves and snow, insects, even a sequence of rapidly changing closeups on people’s eyes held little interest. 

The dual piece, “The Divided Mind,” had the technique of coordinating King’s guitar with prerecorded spoken word, but the text itself, arbitrary, hip-poetic fragments, was all attitude and no meaning. Modern Yesterdays had no daring, and that sealed its fate.

Ensemble Intercontemporain plays Schoenberg, Matthias Pintscher, and Boulez, 7:30 p.m. March 25.

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