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Friday, April 06, 2012

Dutch Treat

I felt bad knocking the Albany Symphony's performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1. True, it was a piece I wrote at the time the performance took place, which was in 1986 or so. And while I have no direct recollection of the concert any more, I'm willing to trust my long-ago appraisal. But the Albany Symphony has come a long way since then. Here's a look back at a terrific concert they gave ten years ago.


The Dogs of Desire,
David Alan Miller, conductor
Troy Performing Arts Center, Troy, NY
Friday 21 March 2002

OSTENSIBLY COMMISSIONED TO CELEBRATE the 350th anniversary of the founding of Albany, NY, by Dutch settlers, the eight works premiered by Albany Symphony Orchestra members on March 22 more aptly celebrated the varied voices of youngish composers – and proved that the technique arsenal has never been more fully stocked.

Tonality, atonality, minimalism, jazz – all of it was represented, with a healthy dollop of humor, too.

The Albany Symphony always has paid attention to new works, and music director David Alan Miller draws an avant-garde unit from the ranks, a group dubbed The Dogs of Desire. (This is a city whose hockey team was named The River Rats.)

Miller introduced the composers, all of whom were present, and conducted the ensemble of sixteen virtuoso players who easily bested every challenge offered to them.

Prix de Rome winner Derek Bermel served a five-week stint as composer-in-residence with the orchestra, which premiered his Clarinet Concerto; for the Dogs concert he showed impressive skill as a vocal composer in his rich, crunchy setting of a bleak poem titled At the End of the World.

Bermel’s Dutch connection was two years of study in Amsterdam with Louis Andriessen, who was a common thread among most of the eight composers. As American-born but longtime Dutch-resident Patrick David Clark explained, Andriessen and his disciples “like to put the wrong notes in,” which went against Clark’s own fascination with tonal music. His composition Spel used as its text a 1952 screed on “How to Train Young Children” that paralleled Clark’s own experience as a rebellious student – and the work deftly captured a ’50s feel of lush harmony with intrusions from rock-and-roll-minded saxes and rhythms.

Dutch composer Michel van der Aa’s In Circles saluted American culture with the use of “a really cheap mono cassette deck,” as the composer put it, which vocalist Barbara Hannigan used to capture and play back parts of the piece in a wistful echo against which she sang to startling effect at the end of the work.

Hannigan and vocalist Alexandra Sweeton joined in sweet harmony for Charles Coleman’s Pavement, a setting of text drawn from Walt Whitman’s “A Broadway Pageant.” Whitman was a “quintessential New Yorker,” in Coleman’s words, and the music suggested where the Broadway musical could go if songwriters let themselves sound more like Stravinsky than Strouse.

Kevin Beavers started out to write “a slick version” of one of Sweelinck’s echo fantasies, “and failed. So I wrote a piece about failure.” Something Like That included deliberate mistakes in what sounded at first like an 18th-century overture and climaxed with the ear-splitting chords of a Hollywood movie fanfare gone awry: very tonal, broad wide-ranging in its techniques.

More experimental were John Korsrud’s Chrome Oxide and Barbara Okma’s Straight. Korsrud is a jazz trumpet player who likes to experiment with improvisation in a formal setting; Chrome Oxide called more for cue-giving than conducting as a swing drummer led the ensemble through bursts of arpeggios and lyrical sections that purposefully didn’t synchronize.

Okma limited her musical vocabulary to three notes for each instrument: lowest, highest, and one between. Three big chords set up a sequence of threes that also included three predominant dynamic levels in a study of textures that probably proved far more fascinating than the audience expected.

Finally, a Beverwijck Overture by a Holland resident, American David Dramm. His simple text came from a Dutch ship captain at the Albany Beverwijck settlement in 1647, marveling at the arrival of a  white whale in the harbor; his setting put gave Hannigan a melodious, melismatic line atop a thick orchestral texture seeded with minimalist contributions from oboe and keyboard amidst a swirl of strings.

Two sellout performances took place at the 99-seat theater in the new Troy Performing Arts Center, about 15 minutes north of Albany.

Michel van der Aa: In Circles
John Korsrud: Chrome Oxide
Derek Bermel: At the End of the World
Charles Coleman: Pavement
Patrick David Clark: Spel
Barbara Okma: Straight
Kevin Beavers: Something Like That
David Dramm: Beverwijck Overture, March 2002

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