Saturday, May 09, 2015

Phoenix meets "Firebird": Arts Premieres in Atlanta

Reflections on pieces seen at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta in the past two weeks:
[Photo: Set for "...Alabama Sky"]
  • The Alliance Theatre's production of Blues for an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage.  Riccardo Hernandez set design. Director Susan V. Booth. April 25.
  • Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Creation/Creator, for soloists, chorus and orchestra, by Christopher Theofanidis, April 25; Imaginary Numbers for clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and French horn, by Michael Gandolfi, May 2.
Last week at a concert of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a packed crowd's enthusiasm for Stravinsky's Firebird suite helped me to see how the city whose symbol is a phoenix has shaped the arts that premiere here.

The mythological bird that rises from its own ashes is a symbol of Atlanta's rise from the ashes of Sherman's March to the Sea in 1865 to become model city of the New South, "the city too busy to hate," an eclectic synthesis of  Confederate Heritage, Civil Rights Era Activism, International Connections, Sunbelt Commerce, and every kind of religion you can think of.

I see Atlanta's many sides during my Saturday morning bike rides on the "Freedom Trail," a smooth bike/jogging/dogwalking path that extends from the Martin Luther King center, past Jimmy Carter's center, through gentrified Lake Claire and artsy college town Decatur, through immigrant haven Clarkston, to Robert E. Lee drive at Stone Mountain Park. Last week, the sky was wide and blue; sunshine gleamed off skyscrapers, cars, and thick greenery.

On Saturday nights these last few weeks, I've been to premieres at Woodruff Arts Center that mirror these qualities of the hometown.  Music by Michael Gandolfi and Christopher Theofanidas also felt spacious, full of brilliant colors and flashes.  There's a lot of contrast in dynamics and texture, motivic development, often pulsing ostinato.   Sometimes the orchestra was layered like Atlanta's intertwining expressways.

Because Spano always pairs work by living composers with old favorites, we heard just how much Stravinsky's Firebird suite shares these same musical traits.  

Both premieres also tied in with quasi-religious texts.  Using soloists, chorus, and dramatic speakers, Theofinidas mixed creation myths with thoughts on the creative process by artists and scientists. Gandolfi's work, though instrumental, takes its musical ideas from pure mathematics and, again, creation myths, this time from Aztec tradition.   We Atlantans can respect world traditions, but we love to get a hint of Sunday morning in our Saturday night arts.

These traits of eclecticism, early 20th century sounds mixed with some late-20th century minimalism, and a tie with religiousness are shared with others who belong to the so-called "Atlanta School" nurtured by music director Robert Spano by commissions and recordings, with encore performances at home and on tour.  Jennifer Higdon and Oswaldo Golijov are also members, with superstar John Adams a kind of avuncular presence -- I hear his Sheherezade 2.0 tonight. If, like me, you're an Atlantan who seeks programs featuring the composer ABBA ("Anybody But Beethoven Again!"), then you know these composers by sight, and you'd even recognize the sounds of their voices, as we hear them in pre-recorded interviews before each premiere. 

Just next door, at the Alliance Theatre,  Blues for an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage displayed the theatrical version of these same traits.  Depicted in Harlem during the Great Depression, the play's characters deal with themes that were at the top of the new "culture wars" of the play's premiere in Atlanta back in 1995: abortion, fundamentalism, gay rights, women in public life.  What must have felt daring and fresh in 1995 feels a bit dated now, though late 20th-century theatrical techniques freed the play from the old four-walled realism of the 1930s.  We could see, simultaneously, action on the street and in two separate apartments.  Time passed in full view, with a shift of light and a playing of Ellington tunes.  A backdrop of windows and an imposing segment of the elevated train track set all the action in the larger Harlem community (see the set, pre-act one, in the photograph). 

No comments: