Artfully added into the mix of speeches, roundtables, full-length concerts and awards at the 65th annual conference of the League of American Orchestras were several performances and one master class, reminding everyone in the best way possible as to what should be at the core of their organizations. With so much of the five-day program devoted to finding a secure way ahead for the orchestral community, hearing concrete examples of why the struggle is worth it effectively balanced the chidings and systemic prescriptions offered by those whose expertise is largely in how to stay afloat rather than playing in time, in tune and in touch with the composers’ cornucopia of musical offerings that have the power to draw audiences into America’s sanctuaries of sound.
Just prior to Ben Cameron’s keynote address, “Art at the Crossroads,” the Greenville County Young Artist Orchestra filled the stage of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta’s Centennial Ballroom. The sole work was Ney Rosauro’s Concerto No. 1 for Marimba and Orchestra conducted by music director Gary A. Robinson, featuring Wesley Strasser as soloist
The economically crafted, four-movement work was the perfect rebuttal of the fearful notion that the gutting of public school music education programs will deprive professional orchestras of both players and attendees.
Strasser demonstrated an impressive command of the mallets whether weaving a musical spell in the more rhapsodic moments (notably “Saudacao”) or rendering the purposely repetitive minimalist cells with clarity and precision. Only the few chromatics threatened to get away from the engaging performer who is already showing a welcome instinct of just when to push or pull the ear-catching lines.
Robinson favours sparse gestures, which worked well when the music was precise and lean, yet a broader approach—particularly in the wonderfully eerie “Lament”—would have pulled the requisite sound from the violins who were most certainly capable of digging deeper into the string.
Moments later, Cameron tore into the anxious community who faced “a litany of cuts—many of those artistic” and the tough love began.
Roughly 24-hours later, the delegates reassembled in the same hall to hear Russell Willis Taylor’s marvellously satirical address, “There Are No Crises, Only Tough Decisions,” but not before the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet prepared the way with a trio of works to enliven the ear before (some might say), Taylor assaulted it.
The jaunty opener by Giles Farnaby had a pleasant edge and—save and except for the hotel acoustics which managed to produce an echo effect for the French horn—produced no crises. Re-casting the “Sarabande” movement from Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite in metallic garb rather than its original string fabric seemed a somewhat “tough” choice. There’s a world of original brass quintet repertoire of similar tenor and tone, yet this choice fit in well with the conference’s oft-repeated theme of giving the audience more of what they want than what the artists believe they need. The closer was a somewhat rough-and-ready reading of “La Rejouissance” from Handel’s ever-popular Fireworks Suite. The playing was crisp, clean and conducive to awakening the attentive crowd from their after-lunch nap mode.
The reward for attending Friday morning’s annual meeting and breakfast was the opportunity to hear pianist Xiayin Wang between the official proceedings and presentations. It takes special courage to agree to perform in a room full of clattering cutlery and door crashes as the delegates came and went. Not only was Wang fearless under fire, she produced some of the finest musical moments of the entire conference.
Earl Wild’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” was given an edgy, perhaps a touch brittle, reading with stellar left-hand work throughout. That zesty opener was followed by a captivatingly refined view of Claude Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse” where Wang’s easy confidence belied the considerable technical challenges—and at 8:10 a.m. no less!
Her second set (management wisely parsed the morning’s requirements into three distinct acts with a pair of musical interludes) concluded with Wild’s “Toccata (à la Ricky Martin) “which was fuelled with supertest power and had just right amounts of weight/wait.
Yet it was the Bach-Marcello version of the Adagio from Concerto in D Minor that brought the room to a magnificent standstill and a truly shared experience. From the first beautifully balanced/voice phrase, servers, delegates and officials alike were drawn into the thoughtfully rendered lines, revelling collectively in the exquisite flow of craft and emotion. Wang-Bach had, for these precious seconds, wordlessly reminded everyone there just what the fuss is all about with our most universal art. Merci mille fois.
After many of the participants had already left Atlanta to venture back to their communities and try to translate the ideas, suggestions and calls-to-action into a to-do list for their organizations, a quartet of conducting fellows took to the podium put into service in the Grand Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Atlanta (Buckhead) for a master class with Robert Spano and Norman Mackenzie. The prescribed repertoire being Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem.
For the next two and one-half hours, the slimmed-down Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the ASO Chamber Chorus attempted to play/sing just exactly what they saw from four budding maestros (Jason Harris, Philip Mann, Tito Muñoz and Catherine Sailer).
As JWR readers know, it is not the custom for these pages to comment on works-in-progress or rate amateur readings. Having been in the same situation in my conducting days, I would not have appreciated a written critique of what were lessons, not performances. Nonetheless, it can be reported that all four improved their result after the generally supportive interventions given by Atlanta’s resident conductors.
Tellingly, at one point, the leader-in-training was asked to stop and just let the orchestra/chorus have at it without benefit of any gestures from anyone. Not surprisingly, the disciplined pros dug deep, employed some bits of body language and delivered a fully formed version of the magical score.
Hopefully, this display of “we don’t really need you” would do more than just humble the talented foursome (and their mentors). What was still lacking (and never surfaced at any time during the session) was a deep discussion about why the notes were on the page not just how to get them to morph from black dots to generally together, pitch-perfect decibels.
When substance drives the art rather than merely its magnificent sound, the true role of all conductors will be revealed; an increasingly rare occurrence these days and a difficult lesson for all.
Still, three cheers to the League for entwining such a bounteous array of music into their congregation. Like a well-played performance, the time vanished in the excitement of possibility. JWR