By George Bulanda
DETROIT — In a city that doesn’t get much love, Tod Machover has composed a sincere if sometimes overzealous valentine to Detroit in his Symphony in D, which received its world premiere with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra led by music director Leonard Slatkin. The symphony is Machover’s bear hug to a town more accustomed to criticism than affection.
The program at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall was offered twice, on Nov. 20 and again on Nov. 21. This writer attended the second performance. The sold-out second concert was also webcast worldwide and projected on the south wall of Orchestra Hall for those without tickets. A warming tent and “s’mores station” kept those folks relatively cozy on a blustery, snowy night.
The five-movement work, roughly a half-hour long, was played without pause. Machover, professor of music and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, has written four other city symphonies: Toronto; Edinburgh, Scotland; Perth, Australia; and, most recently, Lucerne, Switzerland. This is Machover’s first sonic collage of an American city and was made possible by a $315,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Last November the composer asked metro Detroiters to upload sound files that represented their city via a special mobile app he and his Media Lab colleagues created. Many of the sounds were incorporated into his symphony. In all, he received about 15,000 sound submissions, ranging from the Tigers’ opening day at Comerica Park, to the roar of automobile engines, the techno Movement Festival, and the gentle lapping of the Detroit River against the shoreline at Belle Isle, Detroit’s large island park.
The composer has called the response “overwhelming.” In my interview with Machover earlier, he said he was able to use about “half to two-thirds” of the submissions. He said he made monthly trips to Detroit starting in the summer of 2014, exploring the city and talking with its residents, and that he quickly became smitten.
The composer worked until the 11th hour, but Slatkin, a champion of American contemporary music, remained calm. “The piece got finished pretty late, and Leonard really didn’t see the music until the score arrived in the middle of September, and then he got the final score about three weeks ago,” Machover said on Nov. 11.
“He’s been an absolute gentleman. Most people would have been yelling months ago, ‘I have to hear the music!’ But Leonard believed in the project and allowed me to pull all this together.”
Machover hears musical qualities in sounds most people wouldn’t associate with music.
“When you listen to a city quite a bit, you discover there are musical sounds and pitches and rhythms that pop out of nature or even machines,” he explained. “Everything has a pitch, a particular texture or rhythm.”
He did something in Detroit that he hadn’t done with any of his other city symphonies: He invited many of the people he met to be onstage for the last two movements.
“That was something I hadn’t planned at all,” Machover said. “I got halfway through the process, and realized the people I met were so remarkable, both for their stories and their contributions and the music they made, that I wanted to invite some of them to the stage.”
The result made Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand look like a chamber piece. At some points there were so many people onstage that it resembled a scene out of a Cecil B. DeMille film.
Among the speakers and performers were senior residents of the senior living facility American House, who shared their memories of Detroit; the St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church Choir; the techno husband-and-wife team known as Adult; bassist Jonathon Muir-Cotton, youths from the Detroit Achievement Academy and YouthVille; percussionist Efe Bes; storyteller Marsha Music; and poet Tonya Matthews, who performs under the name JaHipster.
The effect was like a civic booster shot, with the speakers offering proud and hopeful commentary about Detroit and its people.
But the overall effect was like cramming flowers into a bouquet, which can ruin the arrangement. Machover added too many voices to an already complex, multi-layered work. His effusiveness apparently got the better of him. Also, many of the sound submissions, which were broadcast through two large speakers above the stage, were sometimes muffled under the weight of the orchestra and other performers.
The first two movements were the strongest of the five. The relentless drive of the first movement, subtitled “Rhythm and Bolts,” was in part a homage to the Motor City’s automotive tradition, while the second, called “Black Bottom Bass,” was a salute to the city’s jazz, Motown, and hip-hop bass lines. Black Bottom was an African-American enclave in Detroit that was also home to the entertainment district called Paradise Valley, where jazz and blues thrived.
One just has to recall the bass lines in such Motown classics as “My Girl,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” or Brenda Holloway’s “When I’m Gone” to realize how strongly they figure in the Motown canon, and hence reflect Detroit.
As Machover said, “Bass music that has come out of Detroit is some of the most inventive in the world.” One would rightly expect the orchestra’s double basses to get a workout in that pulsating section, but the cellists worked just as diligently.
Two gentle movements, “Belle Isle Interlude” and “Memories and Dreams,” followed, with the bustling “Together in D” concluding the work.
Alas, the final two movements, ambitious though they were, actually weakened the work and disproved Oscar Wilde’s maxim, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
The program’s first half was devoted to the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the DSO’s principal cellist, Wei Yu, turning in a lyrically sensitive performance.
George Bulanda is a Detroit-based freelancer who frequently writes about the arts for The Detroit News, Opera Canada and Hour Detroit magazine. He is also the author of two books about Detroit history: The Way It Was and The Way It Was Part 2.