Alabama SO Adds Indie Star Dessner To Rock Collection

The Alabama Symphony Orchestra devoted a program to works by Bryce Dessner, guitarist with the rock group The National.  (Photo by Anne Mie Dreves)
The Alabama Symphony devoted a program to works by Bryce Dessner, guitarist with the rock group The National.
(Photo by Anne Mie Dreves)
By Michael Huebner

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — In 2008, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and then music director Justin Brown came up with an innovative way to reach a bigger audience. Why not, they thought, try to attract a younger demographic to a concert of all modern music, complete with a premiere?

Former ASO music director Justin Brown. (Jochen Klenk)
Former ASO music director Justin Brown devised the series. (Jochen Klenk)

“Young people are very open to new experiences,” Brown told the Birmingham News at the time. “They want to hear something new, to broaden their minds, so you might as well play something that is more relevant to their lives.”

A sold-out crowd on that occasion heard Poul Ruders’ Light Overture (commissioned by Alabama Power), Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver, and the premiere of Paul Lansky’s Shapeshifters in the 1,300-seat Jemison Concert Hall at UAB’s Alys Stephens Center. Seasoned concertgoers more accustomed to Beethoven and Brahms than to Radiohead mingled in equal numbers with twentysomething listeners in jeans and t-shirts curious to hear Greenwood’s Ligeti-esque music from There Will be Blood played live. The hits of the evening? Surprisingly, the ASO commissions by Ruders and Lansky.

Composer-in-residence Ellis Ludwig-Leone.
Composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone brought his band to jam.

Part of “symphony@7,” which evolved to the current series moniker, “The Classical Edge,” the concert helped set in motion a string of composers in residence, starting in 2009-10 with Lansky, and continuing annually with Avner Dorman, Edgar Meyer, Judd Greenstein, Hannah Lash, and Ellis Ludwig-Leone. With modern music seeping into the orchestra’s more traditional “Masterworks” and chamber music series as well, the orchestra garnered the attention of ASCAP, which has awarded it four citations for adventurous programming. It was also noticed by organizers of the Spring for Music festival, for which it made a Carnegie Hall debut performing commissions by Lansky and Dorman in May 2012. [Spring for Music has been reimagined as the SHIFT fest in Washington D.C., beginning in 2017.]

On April 17, the three-concert 2014-15 Classical Edge season closed with music by Bryce Dessner, who was on hand to explain how he balances his career as a rock guitarist — with the enormously successful indie rock group The National — with performances of his scores by the likes of the Copenhagen, New York, and Los Angeles Philharmonics, Kronos Quartet, and Sō Percussion.

“The joke in my band is that my first paid gigs for many years were only in classical music, while the band was playing in tiny rock clubs to nobody,” he told the Birmingham audience.

Dessner’s Lachrimae (2012) channels John Dowland in a strings-alone Elizabethan evocation. Soaring above an ethereal backdrop of string harmonics glissandi, Dessner suggests the four-note descent in the “Seaven Teares” pavanes, then heightens the intrigue by reaching a nearly cinematic sweep.

The indie rock duo Wye Oak comprises Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack.
The indie rock duo Wye Oak – Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack – played on the series.

Originally commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, Tenebre (2010) was expanded to string orchestra, given here a richness that a quartet could never achieve — particularly effective as soft, scintillating string tremolos morph into dizzying pitch bends, full-bodied quadruple stops beneath a soft, high counterpoint, and undulating cross rhythms à la Steve Reich (Dessner’s former mentor).

St. Carolyn by the Sea, for two electric guitars and orchestra, is less a concerto than an amalgamation of the unusual solo instruments with orchestra. With this work, Dessner has proven himself a master of orchestral color, less concerned with his own virtuosity (he soloed with fellow electric guitarist Gyan Riley) than with blend. Its breadth and depth were palpable as full brass and percussion brought the work to it apex, the New York-based conductor Joshua Gersen leading ably. With so many new scores constantly appearing on their stands, this is an orchestra whose chops are finely tuned to modernism, and yet it remains connected to its classical and romantic base.

The concert was the third this season to bring the Brooklyn indie rock scene to Birmingham. The first featured this season’s composer-in-residence, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, a gifted musician whose ASO commission How to Fake Your Death was premiered on a March 6 Classical Edge event.  Ludwig-Leone brought his band San Fermin to jam after intermission. On March 26, the indie rock duo Wye Oak joined forces with composer William Brittelle and his brand of “secular spirituality.”

Composer William Brittelle joined forces with Wye Oak on March 26
Composer William Brittelle brought his brand of “secular spirituality” to a concert.

In 2013-14 alone, 17 composers were listed by ASCAP in giving ASO first place among Group 2 orchestras for adventurous programming, and a similar count is expected this season. Among them were Mason Bates, Anna Clyne, Mohammed Fairouz, Vivian Fung, Osvaldo Golijov, and Yotam Haber. The biggest challenge facing the series is attendance, which has fallen to an average of a few hundred since the 2008 Greenwood-Lansky-Ruders event. Audiences continue to be a mix of young and old, just not as many.

Enthusiasm from the ASO support group Sound Investment has kept the series alive. It raises money for commissions and residencies and holds public events, including after-parties at a local café, to get the word out. Also on board is Pierre Ruhe, the former Atlanta Journal-Constitution critic and now ASO’s director of artistic planning, who works closely with composers, conductor, and performers in putting these concerts together.

Brown left the orchestra in 2011 to focus on his directorship of the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, Germany. The 37-year-old Venezuelan Carlos Izcaray, another staunch new-music advocate, was recently hired as music director, so the modernist thrust is likely to continue.

Formerly the classical music critic and fine arts reporter for the  Birmingham News and, Michael Huebner now writes for, a website devoted to arts coverage in Birmingham. Before  coming to Alabama, he wrote freelance for the Kansas City Star and Austin American-Statesman.