Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Robert Spano and the ASO: Bringing New Composers into the Family

(reflections on a concert April 5 by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, music director Robert Spano conducting.)

Robert Spano’s long-range plans for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are coming to fruition.  He has
ASO's Kurth with young composer Primous
intentionally developed an “Atlanta School” of composers over the past decade, so that we’ve grown used to hearing new or nearly-new works by Higdon, Gandolfi, Golijov, and Theofanidas, among others.Though four of five works on Friday night’s program date from the 2000s, the audience responded as if this were nothing unusual, and they welcomed even the most unfamiliar pieces into the family.

The youngest composer was fifteen-year-old Commodore Primous III.  Brought to the ASO through its “Next Generation” program and mentored by ASO bass player Michael Kurth, Primous endeared himself to the audience during a recorded interview with Mr. Spano, who asked him to play his piece on piano.  The gangly young man played octaves with his left hand while the thumb and forefinger of his right ran a rapid descent from the high end of the keyboard, and it was very pleasant in a George-Winstony kind of way.  With Kurth’s help, Primous added layers of harmony and countermelody to those parts for left and right hands, and built his “Lullaby” into something very different that he now calls The Triumph of Day. After the piece was over, Primous bounded up on stage for his standing ovation – pretty common response by our affectionate audience. 

Kurth’s own composition Everything Lasts Forever takes inspiration for its three movements from graffiti in the neighborhood not far from where we were seated.  He, too, got the video interview with Spano, and he admitted that, as a player with the ASO, he knows what’s frustrating and he knows what kind of challenges the players want.  It sounded to me as though he exposed each section of the orchestra enough to justify caling this a concerto for orchestra. 

Kurth’s interview included photos of the graffiti that he used for his “program.”  Images of feet by a tagger with moniker “Toes” suggested a foot-stomp motif that kicked off the piece.  Dancing around different sections of the orchestra, these stomps developed through different colors and moods.  A black-and-white image of a bird to which some tagger later added a red heart, inspired “Bird Song Love.”  It’s a simple song played first on celesta, repeated with new colors added on top, until it developed into something much bigger for full orchestra.  The foot stomps returned in the sweet third movement, gently this time, to tie the piece together in a way that satisfied and charmed.

Yet a third video interview (the most I’ve seen in one concert) re-introduced us to Marcus Roberts, whom I last saw when he improvised fresh cadenzas for Gershwin (was it Rhapsody or his Concerto?) some years ago.  Roberts composed Spirit of the Blues: Piano Concerto in C minor at an electronic keyboard, layering different parts on top of each other to build the orchestral score.  He admitted to Spano in the interview that he’d had trouble with structure, and my own impression on first hearing is that he never did escape the box of the classical formula of  orchestral passage – solo cadenza – orchestra passage, etc.   Even playing his own solos, Roberts seemed constrained.  While every bit of the piece was fine in itself, I didn’t feel that it took us anywhere.

The other two pieces on the program were textbook examples of how to take a listener on a journey, and they are both “in the family,” too. 

Bernstein’s West Side Story dance suite had been in the repertoire only ten years, when I and my sixth grade classmates sat in the balcony of this very hall to hear the ASO play it in 1971.  As often as I hear this familiar piece, Lenny catches me by surprise with the ways that he prepares the transitions from one melody to the next.  Admittedly, he made that easy for himself when he’d built many of the songs in his musical on the interval of the augmented fourth that the “Jets” gang uses for its signature whistle.  It plays at the start of the suite, emerges again from the busy texture of the Prologue to mark its transition to “Somewhere,” and reappears in tunes we know as “Maria” and “Cool.”  Bernstein reuses certain textures to mark our progress from one movement to another, as when we hear fragmentary flights of melody by flutes chasing little bursts of percussion while the orchestra sits in tense silence; and when the bass section plucks a funeral march under stretched out song-lines in the high strings. 

Rainbow Body by Christopher Theofanidas premiered in Atlanta in 2000, so it’s already older now than Bernstein’s piece was when I first heard it.  Spano and the ASO schedule Rainbow Body every fiew years, and their recording of it is played often on our local NPR station, so it’s an old friend in the repertoire.   Based on a line from 12th century composer Hildegard van Bingen, the piece builds like a dance from some characteristic gestures:  a stately statement of the melody in the brass, a sparkling fountain of sound that rises suddenly as punctuation at junctures of the piece, and a dark rumbling fragment of Hildegard’s melody.  By the end, when these sounds reinforce each other, they all contribute to a glorious finale for the piece, and for the concert.  

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