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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Music Unleashed

From the Concert Vault Dept.: The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s 2013 American Music Festival takes place this weekend, and its centerpiece is the performance at 7:30 PM Friday, May 31, of the orchestra’s small ensemble, the Dogs of Desire. The program includes cutting-edge works by Robert Paterson and Jay Craven, Amanda Harberg and Micah Fink, Jacob Cooper, Roshanne Etezady, Todd Levin, David Mallamud, and Ken Eberhard, and takes place at EMPAC, the wonderful experimental theater complex in Troy. Here’s my review of one of the ensemble’s earlier concerts.


PLACING THIS SMALL-GROUP UNIT of the Albany Symphony in Troy’s Revolution Hall underscored the ensemble’s mission, which is to bring contemporary classical music beyond its usual rarefied venues. It’s a worthy idea, even if it seems mostly to attract the current (and, I suspect, consistent) Dogs of Desire audience. The players are among the best the orchestra has to offer, and conductor David Alan Miller has an obvious affinity for the new, exuberant music that this ensemble commissions and premieres.

The Dogs of Desire | Photo by Gary Gold
This year’s farrago, like last year’s, comprised eight works, most of them balancing the dense orchestral voice too often used to distinguish “classical” music from its more easygoing brethren with a fresher, rock-inspired sound.

Dana Wilson’s “Song of Desire” showed how these tools can be most effectively used. Adding the talents of two singers, Heather Gardner and Alexandra Sweeton, to add twin lines of wordless vocalese, he began with what could have been a leftover Ketelby melody and wove it into a compelling realization of the emotion in question by a deft series of contrasts, from solo lines on violin and cello to a more full-out brass declamation.

There was more tension in Ken Eberhard’s “Channel Surfing,” a fantasia that at times saluted the rhythms and woodwind sounds of Stravinsky, and at other times fell into movie-music mode, but in the style of the intelligent, jazzy music of, say, Jerome Moross. An amazing amount of contrast was packed into this six-minute work, but it was an edgier contrast than Wilson’s piece displayed.

With a background in musical theater, it’s no surprise that Randall Eng would consider the theatrical possibilities of a work like his “Flowing, in 2,” which gave words to the singers (text by Matthew McGuire) and showed a wonderful surety of style – the Bernstein influence was apparent – casting the voices in carefully considered solos, unisons and harmonies. What words I could follow (no printed texts were provided) seemed to have been chosen more for euphony than dramatic effect, which undercut the impact of the piece.

Daniel Bernard Roumain is known for music and performances that bridge classical traditions with contemporary urban stylings, and “La, La, La, La” announced from the outset, with its rhythm-box-like opening, that it would deliver its message with wit. Eight-bar phrases, possibly drawn from a gospel song, were tossed from string quartet to winds and finally, more fragmented, to full orchestra for an effective concert-opening piece.

And the transition to Huang Ruo’s “Leaving Sao” couldn’t have been more startling. “Sao” is Chinese for sorrow or sadness, and he gave Gardner a lyric in that language sung with plenty of pitch blending and other native vocal effects that were mimicked and expanded in the orchestra. Much of it was keyed to the natural music of the language; combined with a very different harmonic and rhythmic background, the East-West fusion is difficult to achieve without sounding trite, but Ruo was impressively effective.

Dan Cooper, master of the seven-string electric bass, has written works for the Dogs before; this concert saw the premiere of his lively Concertino, a classically structured three-movement work that manages to be utterly charming amidst a throbbing swirl of cacophony, all of it making unexpected sense as the work unfolded. As soloist, Cooper afforded himself plenty of opportunity for virtuosic display, an old-fashioned but still pleasing concerto characteristic.

Because one of the commissioned works wasn’t ready, we had a reprise of last year’s “Puja,” by Gabriel Ian Gould. Electric bass, rock-rhythm drumming, two sopranos with a sinuous vocal and careful use of winds and strings gave “Bollywood” effect the composer wished to capture; the vocal, drawn from a 13th-century Hindu prayer, was a surprisingly fitting companion.

Arthur Bloom proved some seasons back that an unlikely pair of tunes can make surprisingly good bedfellows, and, in “That’s the Way I Like It,” reprised as an encore, Sweeton sang the song from KC (uh-huh) and the Sunshine Band as the orchestra found moments of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 to weave in.

Bloom was back with another concept piece: “Orchestrobics,” which, as I discovered to my slothful horror, called upon the audience to follow Mary Anne Fantauzzi’s lively aerobics while the ensemble accompanied it with jagged but danceable rhythms and jazzy snatches of tune. Many of the exercises required the audience to mime musical instrument playing, to the delight of those orchestra players who could grab glances at their imitators.

That seems to be it for the Dogs this season, but the full Albany Symphony next performs at 8 PM April 23 at the Troy Music Hall, with pianist Yefim Bronfman playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 4 and the world premiere of James Matheson’s “Umbras and Illuminations.”

The Dogs of Desire, conducted by David Alan Miller
Revolution Hall, Troy; March 26, 2004

Metroland Magazine, 1 April 2004

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