Review: The American Composers Orchestra Celebrates a Milestone With Successful Premieres
By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, November 8, 2017
The American Composers Orchestra took a well-deserved victory lap on November 7, the occasion of their 40th anniversary gala concert. As the only orchestra in the country that is dedicated solely to the creation and performance of new American music, ACO has become a vital force for contemporary music in the concert hall. Conducting duties for this celebratory concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater were shared by Dennis Russell Davies, the ACO’s first and longtime leader (and now Conductor Laureate), and George Manahan, the current Music Director.
The program opened with Fanfare, Fugue and Funk (1972) by Francis Thorne, the principal founder of ACO. Thorne, who died this past March, had a lifelong love of jazz that is reflected in this curious piece. But this is clearly a work of twentieth-century modernism with jazz inflections, not the other way around. There are flashy riffs, theatrical swells, growling brass with wa-wa mutes, and occasional bursts of swing, but the harmonic language is mostly dissonant, and extended sections are cacophonous. Ives seems to have been a strong influence. It’s a fascinating and absorbing mélange, although even Davies, who conducted the thorny (no pun intended) piece, commented later that “If we played it again, you probably wouldn’t understand it any better than you did the first time.” Personally, I would have been happy to hear it again.
Leonard Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata (1941-42) was the composer’s first published work. ACO artistic director and clarinetist Derek Bermel performed the piece in its orchestrated version by Sid Ramin. A wonderful creation in the original clarinet and piano setting, the work seems immediately warmer and richer with the string-dominated accompaniment. Bermel, an unusually sensitive clarinetist with great intonation and impressive dynamic control, gave the piece a tender and obviously heartfelt rendition. There are some exuberant passages in 5/8 time, which Bermel navigated with great verve, although the ensemble playing under Manahan was alarmingly precarious in a few difficult spots. At the end of the piece, Bernstein pre-figures the “Somewhere” motif from West Side Story, which seemed to create a frisson in the audience.
Next, Paola Prestini’s Prelude and Aria from her opera Gilgamesh (2016) received its New York premiere, with countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as soloist. The opera’s protagonist is Ming, who is half demon, half man; this particular piece is sung by the Green Snake, the former lover of Ming’s mother Madame White Snake, and now a female-reptile hybrid. The Prelude is violent and unsettling, with dissonant clusters and wild woodblock eruptions; the soothing Aria is much more traditional in its harmonic language, but stirring and otherworldly. Orliński held the audience rapt in this sinuous musical monologue.
Elizabeth Ogonek’s Sleep and Unremembrance (2016), receiving its U.S. premiere, had a decided stamp of originality. The piece features lots of flashing gestures, wild sounds, and flurries of notes—it’s a schizophrenic tapestry with a dazzling display of orchestral color. At times the musical logic was hard to discern, but that may have been partly the point in a piece whose subject is disappearing memories. Regardless, it was continuously imaginative and interesting. The concluding section provides a peaceful sonic landscape, draped in a hazy sort of mysticism, as if something beautiful were becoming visible in the distance. The last chord, however, with its unresolved diminished fifth, leaves us with a suitably inscrutable question mark.
Soprano Mikaela Bennett, a recent Juilliard graduate, spearheaded a trio of American songbook standards—unusual programming for the ACO, but why not? Bennett brought an endearing combination of ingenuousness and sass to the table. Hers is the perfect kind of voice for crossover repertoire: an impeccably trained soprano with no opera singer affectations—just opulent vocal beauty. We were treated to the rarely heard introductory verses of all three numbers, including a grinding, bluesy treatment of the opening to Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” (On the instrumental break of that number, the ACO transformed itself into a swinging pops orchestra under Manahan.) Bennett also gave a marvelously fresh rendition of Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” as if performing it for an audience who had somehow never heard it, and she lavished luscious vocal caresses onto the arching melodies of Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are.” The audience ate it up.
Davies, a wizardly master of baton technique, was back on the podium for Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige, clearly the work of a jazz great writing for the concert hall. Under Davies, the piece swung relentlessly from start to finish, except for the passages of achingly lovely melodies. Some have described Ellington as the greatest American composer of the last century; this irresistible piece and the ACO’s spot-on performance of it, offered plenty of evidence to support that anti-establishment theory.
A Celebration of American Music — a 40th Birthday Concert presented by the American Composers Orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater on November 7, 2017. George Manahan, Music Director and Conductor; Dennis Russell Davies, Conductor Laureate; Derek Bermel, Artistic Director and clarinet soloist; Mikaela Bennett, soprano; Jakub Józef Orliński, countertenor; Kevin Newbury, director.
FRANCIS THORNE – Fanfare, Fugue and Funk
LEONARD BERNSTEIN – Clarinet Sonata
PAOLA PRESTINI – Prelude and Aria (Gilgamesh)
ELIZABETH OGONEK – Sleep and Unremembrance
GEORGE GERSHWIN / IRA GERSHWIN – “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”
HAROLD ARLEN / E.Y. HARBURG – “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
JEROME KERN / OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II – “All the Things You Are”
DUKE ELLINGTON – Black, Brown & Beige
Cover: George Manahan conducting the American Composers Orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall; photo: Noah Stern Weber.