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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

All-American Whirl

From the Classical Vault Dept.: The Albany Symphony just finished this year’s American Music Festival (I’ll post reviews later), and is about to embark (literally) on a tour of the Erie Canal, which, these days, is the Mohawk River, fitted with locks to accommodate such passage. Each of the canalside concerts they’ll perform features Handel’s “Water Music” alongside music by living composers written in celebration of the event. Here’s a schedule and info. The ASO has been doing this kind of thing for quite some time, and here’s a piece I wrote in 1999 that looks at what was happening then.


WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE classical piece? Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”? Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata? Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot”?

David Alan Miller
If you haven’t got the last-named on your list, a pair of weekend concerts might revise your thinking. And, for the dozens of students who play in the bands at Guilderland and Tamarac High Schools, the concerts will affirm what they’ve been learning from the Common Sense Composers’ Collective: Good music resists categorization.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra kicks off a two-week American Music Festival at 7:30 PM tomorrow (Friday) with a Bandjam Concert at the Guilderland High School. In the spirit of the classic battles of the bands, ensembles from the Guilderland and Tamarac schools will premiere variations on “Zoot Suit Riot,” a theme chosen by the students for their work with the eight composers who comprise the Common Sense Collective.

Says Collective founder Dan Becker, “This idea of collaborating with living artists isn’t usually regarded as part of music. You see it a lot with theater and dance, and I saw it because my parents were involved in theater. I grew up around this process of rehearsing something, making changes, trying it out before an audience, making some more changes. It’s a dialogue with the audience.”

ASO Music Director David Alan Miller echoes that sentiment. “It’s great for the students, who probably never have encountered living composers. And the message here is that classical music encompasses everything. American concert music isn’t just, you know, Sousa marches and Copland ballets.”

The process began late last year, when the band students at each high school were asked to list their five favorite songs. “They were impressive lists,” says Becker, “with a lot of overlap. ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was there, along with a couple of the swing tunes that are so popular now. We eventually settled on ‘Zoot Suit Riot.’”

The eight composers made their first visit in November, where they presented the chosen theme and discussed the idea of variations. “We were back in January with the variations each of us wrote, and we worked with the bands, made some changes, worked some more – I don’t think we realized how hard this would be.”

Each composer chose a different American dance form, and they weren’t shy about stretching the concepts. “I chose ragtime,” says Becker, “and so I worked a couple of Scott Joplin tunes into my variation. “My wife, Belinda Reynolds, started writing a boogie-woogie piece when a friend of hers died. She decided to also incorporate the style of the spiritual hymn, and used elements of ‘Amazing Grace.’”

The other six styles are similarly ingenious. Carolyn Yarnell titled her piece “Code Warrior,” inspired by techno and incorporating a text using sentence fragments drawn from a variety of sources, from Shakespeare to TV Guide. Randall Woolf’s “Hee-Haw” is a square dance: or, as he puts it, “A psychedelic hallucination of a square dance party.”

Marc Mellits chose disco, and “Phase, Inc.” draws material from “Funky Town” by Lipps, Inc. As for Melissa Hui’s “ethno-bebop,” she recalls, “While I was in Paris last spring, I emerged from a new music concert only to hear a Brazilian band outside.” She wrote her variation, “Dog Days,” with borrowed Brazilian rhythms.

“Dancing with Mead and Freud” is Ed Harsh’s picture of the Motown girl groups and says that piece “locates itself somewhere on the road between Detroit and the happy, well-scrubbed suburbs of Anywhere, USA, where women sometimes find themselves trapped as girls dancing alone in a doll house.”

And even more directly political statement is made in John Halle’s “The Twist,” which deals with both Chubby Checker and Presidential duplicity, incorporating samples of “presidential lying” into his work.

It’s a far cry from the days of Haydn and Mozart, when pieces were written for a royal patron’s pleasure. Then again, such diversity is the point of an American music festival, says Miller. “There’s no such thing as ‘an’ American music. It’s an all-inclusive, multi-faceted set of musical languages.” No surprise, then, that a group of eight young composers who have known one another for many years should still be so diverse in their artistic voices.

“Zoot Suit Riot” and variations also will be performed at a Dogs of Desire concert at 7:30 PM Saturday at the Bush Center at Troy’s Russell Sage College. For more background to the event, and a chance to meet the composers, a special workshop will be held at 2 PM Saturday at the RCCA Arts Center in Troy.

The Festival continues with a concert at 3 PM Sunday at Albany’s Palace Theatre featuring the Albany Symphony in a Great American Pops Concert. Lots of Broadway and Hollywood fare, with a salute to John Philip Sousa and the world premiere of a concerto for fiddle and violin by Evan Chambers. “I think it’s going to be the sleeper sensation of the festival,” says Miller, “and we’ve got a wonderful soloist joining us in fiddler Nollaig Casey, one of the stars of Irish music.” She joins ASO concertmaster Jill Levy in the concerto. Chambers is himself an Irish fiddler, as well as a professor of composition at the University of Michigan.

“Throughout the festival, we’re presenting many different sides of American music and musicians,” Miller says. “Other composers whose music we’re playing are John Harbison, who’s a rugged New Englander; Kamran Ince, a Turkish-American; Don Gillis, who’s this urbane guy from the ’50s, and Aaron Copland, a Jewish boy from the Bronx.”

Harbison’s new opera, “The Great Gatsby,” gets a preview at a special dinner Friday, March 12 at the Fort Orange Club, while his Symphony No. 3 will be played by the ASO at its subscription concert at the Troy Music Hall the following evening. Milwaukee’s new music group “Present Music” joins the orchestra in Ince’s “Fest,” and Don Gillis’s ballet suite “Shindig” also is on the program.

The final festival event is the culmination of composer Arthur Bloom’s collaboration with students at Albany’s Philip Schuyler Elementary School. Chorus and instrumentalists join forces in a program titled “Yo, Peter! Yo, Wolf!” at 10 AM Thurs., March 18 at the Palace Theatre in Albany.

Metroland Magazine, 4 March 1999

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