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Review: With Premieres, an Orchestra Keeps Facing Forward



Pity the American composer interested in writing orchestral music. Unless your last name is Glass, Reich or Adams, opportunities are destined to come few and far between.

But one institution bucks this regrettable trend. The focus of the American Composers Orchestra is right there in its name: Its website specifies an intention to spotlight “the infinite variety of American orchestral music, reflecting gender, racial, ethnic, geographic, stylistic and age diversity.”

On Thursday night at Zankel Hall in Manhattan, the orchestra did its mission proud. There was a significant amount of music from veterans of the American experimental scene: Augusta Read Thomas’s “Sun Dance — In memoriam Oliver Knussen” and George E. Lewis’s “Weathering.” Pieces by the younger composers Nina C. Young and Jack Hughes offered distinct ways of engaging the tradition of tonal writing, and Guillermo Klein’s “The Kingdom” offered some of the poised polystylism familiar from his work as a pianist and bandleader.

With the exception of Thomas’s work, a local premiere, every piece on Thursday was being given its world premiere. All told, the program’s 70 minutes of playing were equal to the amount of new American orchestral music that you might catch in an especially ambitious month of, say, the New York Philharmonic’s season.

Led by Vimbayi Kaziboni, the American Composers Orchestra gave an impressive account of the varied works, even if there were occasional hints that this program had tested the limited rehearsal time available for it — as in some blurred brass articulation in Thomas’s hard-riffing, six-minute tribute to Knussen. But overall, the ensemble’s sound was a pleasure to hear, across pieces that were all worth hearing.

“Weathering,” a bustling, impassioned 15-minute work, continued Lewis’s sterling recent run of music for large forces. (How long until the Philharmonic, his local symphony, recognizes the merit of his orchestral catalog?) Speaking from the stage before the performance, he compared the title with the endurance required in the face of racist microaggressions. He advertised a noisy “weathering” chord that he said depicted this ritual annoyance. It was indeed noisy, and did indeed recur. But it was also not narrowly didactic: His packed yet considered orchestrations connote a generous spirit — even, or particularly, in moments of carefully chiseled chromatic density.

Lewis’s “weathering” chord, then, cut a wry, playful figure whenever it appeared. And the balance of his writing was riveting, with different elements catching the ear in near simultaneity. One such moment of supple rhythmic patterning came from a pair of percussionists playing gongs that led to a wisp of luminous harp writing and droning in the woodwinds. Kaziboni shaped this hyperactive swirl with crucial attention to dynamics. At one juncture, he let the orchestra rip with a loud chord, then pared things back to cradle a crying articulation in the trumpets.

Discussions of tonal contemporary music sometime fall into the cliché of calling any such works “lushly” melodic. So give Hughes credit: His motivic sense in “Three Ways of Getting There” on Thursday was robust and convincing. And yet his accompanying orchestration didn’t operate with any boring received wisdom. In the first movement, as an undulating-then-rising melodic figure was passed among the strings, there was also tartness that offered a clever way of scrambling expected codes for conventional melody. (Tuneful and finely textured, “Three Ways” makes you wonder what Hughes would do with an opera commission.)

After intermission, “The Kingdom” offered some of the characteristic complexity of Klein, a pianist-composer known for writing harmonically stacked material for his jazz ensemble, Los Guachos. Where his recordings spoil listeners with fine-drilled detail, some moments of Thursday’s performance had me wondering about intonation: Passages of polyphonic sourness could seem slightly overdone, even though I left wanting to hear the piece again.

I had a similar reaction to Young’s “Out of whose womb came the ice,” a 28-minute monodrama for orchestra and baritone (Sidney Outlaw, sounding richly impassioned). Inspired by Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic exploration, it was full of spacious expanses and some stark, well judged dramatic pivots. Not all those were obviously loud in nature: At multiple junctures, Young skillfully depicted hope breaking down through a subtly unspooling, solo instrumental line, amid keening hazes of arid orchestration.

But the text, by Young and David Tinervia, overindulged in nautical coordinates and other technical language. It also stinted on some of the concepts Young described more expansively in a program note — specifically, her interest in the crew’s “perception of the Endurance in relationship to their surroundings.” Her electronic elements, while well produced, tended to distract attention from the orchestral momentum. And R. Luke Dubois’s accompanying video design was likewise too often literal, depicting blocks of ice in various stages of melting.

It’s unfortunate that Thursday’s program was a one-off performance. Still, Kaziboni and the players were skilled champions of the music. And the focused attention of a robust crowd of listeners was an indication that this group’s necessary interventions have a ready, supportive local audience.

American Composers Orchestra

Performed on Thursday at Zankel Hall, Manhattan.