JWR Articles: Live Event - Atlanta School of Composers (Conductor: Robert Spano) - June 22, 2010

Atlanta School of Composers

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Give the Atlanta School of Composers straight A’s

After three days of drilling down to find the magic bullet for the longevity of orchestras large and small, today’s concert provided a real-time solution to the oft-touted objective of reworking missions, abandoning the goal “to be about something” [e.g., “the best regional orchestra in the mid-West”] in favour of “to be for someone” [e.g., the music-loving public or, perhaps, living composers].

Imagine a major symphony orchestra presenting an entire program of twenty-first century compositions and delighting, inspiring and entertaining everyone in the hall? How wonderfully refreshing to hear truly contemporary new works, surrounded by each other rather than being the grant-inducing novelty, which, like Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 “festival” of one-act plays prior to the main event (cross-reference below), allowed “discerning” audience members to arrive a bit late and not miss the equivalent of the Brahms concerto or Beethoven symphony.

Imagine every work being expertly played, and, accordingly, enthusiastically applauded rather than stoically endured.

Along the same theme, just prior to the magnificent eruption of first-tier art, the League of American Orchestra’s CEO, Jesse Rosen presented the Gold Baton Award to Jim Vella (president, Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services) and Bob Rosoff (the executive director of the Glens Falls Symphony accepted the award on behalf of America’s Smaller-Budget Orchestras). As has been reviewed elsewhere on JWR (cross-reference below), these honours were a direct result of the Ford Made in America commissioning program. Essentially, funds from the employees of the sole homeland survivor of the recent automobile financial fiasco, have commissioned (so far) a pair of works performed dozens of times by the participating ensembles. All 50 states are now represented. If this innovative solution to having excellent new music heard more than once before consignment to a dusty library shelf continues on its present path, then concerts such as today’s will become regular features rather than anomalies, making every participating orchestra’s case for support significantly stronger.

Conductor Robert Spano appeared to be much more at home with this quartet of pieces from composers in the “Atlanta School” than Verdi’s monumental Requiem two days ago.

Selections from The Garden of Cosmic Speculation whetted the appetite for the complete work. The movements presented revealed Michael Gandolfi as both an informed student of early twentieth century orchestration and an able classical-repertoire sampler (a flash from the Beethoven’s “Pastorale” being just one of several mini-quotes from the past). This Garden was chock-a-block full of insects (muted trumpets buzzed about) and lush terraces were filled to the brim with big horns aplenty. The late-inning triplets appeared miraculously: so like needed rain.

The emotional highlight of the performance came thanks to soprano Heidi Grant Murphy’s breathtakingly-moving interpretation of Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs. Her incredible ability of launching upper-range notes from nowhere was only topped by her artistic integrity and sensibility of pulling back, rather than pushing out—dictated by the text (“Is it too late to touch you, Dear”)—rather than succumbing to vocal ego. Spano was at his best, no doubt inspired by the voice and the music; eschewing the baton gave another visual reinforcement to the intimacy of the work but also produced the best ensemble of the lot. Merci mille fois!

Jennifer Higdon’ concerto grosso, On A Wire, was a fascinating combination of the soloists (eighth blackbird) in musical communion with a bowed, dampened and “malletted” piano as well as an orchestral joie de vivre that accomplished much more than just permitting the frequent position and instrument changes. As good as all of the guest performers were, Nicholas Photinos’ soaring, searing cello lament and Matthew Duvall’s spectacular display of marimba stick technique and unflinching pulse/rhythm were especially memorable.

The first-written was last played—already a decade old, Christopher Theofanidis’ Rainbow Country was a sonic knockout, ranging from the respectful “grace” [a lyrical motif from Hildegard of Bingen] through Richard Strauss swatches of woodwinds (and a mightily rendered solo cello intervention thanks to the skill set of Christopher Rex) to angry muted brass and, finally, decibel heaven to which any enlightened, now unworldly soul would love to ethereally rise towards.

In these 90 minutes (replete with overhead video interviews for the digital generation) there is a valid response to “What now? How do we orchestras demonstrate value in our current economic climate?” But how many of the orchestras represented in the audience (this was not a regular subscription performance) will have the courage to take this framework and program just such an event in their main series? JWR

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Conductor - Robert Spano
Soprano - Heidi Grant Murphy
Selections from "The Garden of Cosmic Speculation" - Michael Gandolfi
Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra - Osvaldo Golijov
On a Wire - Jennifer Higdon
Rainbow Body - Christopher Theofanidis
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