By Mike Greenberg
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Concerts of wildly divergent character, by equally dissimilar orchestras, occupied consecutive evenings (April 12 and 13) of SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras, a joint effort of Washington Performing Arts and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The Albany Symphony, a per-service orchestra with a scant $2.7 million annual budget, was represented on April 12 by its 16-player new-music ensemble called Dogs of Desire, with music director David Alan Miller at the helm and jazz singer-composer Theo Bleckmann the soloist. The music, mostly songs, was commissioned for the occasion from a collective of six young American composers calling themselves Sleeping Giant. If the names Dogs of Desire and Sleeping Giant evoke indie rock images, the evocation is apt. Apt, too, was the venue, a psychedelically repainted former church called Blind Whino, which normally hosts hip-hop concerts.
The next evening’s venue was the august concert hall of the Kennedy Center, whose white-marble Mausoleum Revival architecture could benefit from Blind Whino’s paint scheme. The orchestra was the Indianapolis Symphony, with a budget close to $30 million. (Its budget surplus for the 2015-16 season could have paid for two years of the Albany Symphony, with money to spare.) Only an orchestra with such large resources could have undertaken so ambitious a program — Witold Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto (1970), with the electrifying Alisa Weilerstein as soloist, and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo (1998), abetted by a mostly excellent quintet of vocal soloists and the combined forces of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. Music director Krzysztof Urbański, a native of Poland, conducted his countrymen’s music.
Both of those Polish works are masterpieces of the late 20th century, and the Lutosławski could justly be assessed as one of the greatest of all cello concertos — deep, compelling, transformative.
The Cello Concerto, as Urbański told the audience before the performance, represents in stark and powerful terms the struggle between the individual and an oppressive social or political order. The soloist opens with a long, unaccompanied introduction comprising a steady pulse — a repeated D in the bass staff — interrupted by sudden, brief flurries of nervous hyperactivity. The composer marked the repeated Ds “indifferente,” and Weilerstein, choosing a slowish tempo suggestive of cautious anxiety, managed indeed to make of them a blank mask — no small achievement for a musician whose normal practice is to imbue every note with character.
The image that came to mind was of a person standing still, marking time, trying to avoid notice by the authorities — and periodically, when the authorities’ backs were turned, breaking into frenetic bouts of free thought. Several minutes pass (in this performance, fully five minutes) before the orchestra enters in the form of braying, thuggish trumpets. Much of the orchestration is spare, with a wonderfully wide palette of colors, but a tutti episode evokes the madness of crowds (these two pages of the score almost look like an enormous lynch mob). The emotional center of the work, however, is an outpouring of visceral, profoundly expressive cello melody, given the character of a great tragic soliloquy by Weilerstein.
As Lutosławski dispensed with time signatures and conventional bar lines, the concerto is a challenge for an orchestra, and the Indianapolis band acquitted itself well.
Penderecki attained prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as one of the period’s most out-there — and most popular — avant-garde composers. In the early 1970s, he abruptly switched gears, choosing a more accessible style based on traditional tonality. His setting of the Credo is a product of that second phase, but if the terrain is not the same as in Penderecki’s avant-garde period, the underlying geology is not so different. In the Credo’s density, colorations, and layers of rhythmic complexity, it is fully on a continuum with Penderecki’s earlier music. Credo lasts only about three-quarters of an hour, but it has the monumentality and weight of a full-evening work.
Slight ensemble problems in the performance were what might be expected from an orchestra playing in an unfamiliar (and acoustically quite dry) hall. More troubling were some woodwind solos that sounded tentative, as though they’d been stitched together phonetically. The chorus sang stirringly and with crisp diction. Apart from some pinched high notes by tenor Thomas Cooley, the vocal solos were delivered with beauty and expressive authority. His colleagues were soprano Erin Wall, mezzo-sopranos Renée Tatum and Alyssa Martin, and bass Liudas Mikalauskas.
Urbański and the Indianapolis strings opened the concert with a preemptive encore by yet another Polish composer. Wojciech Kilar, who died in 2013, was part of the Polish avant-garde with Penderecki, and he also was a significant film composer. His Orawa proved a highly attractive piece based on a brief idée fixe, repeated with slight alterations and several silences followed by sudden changes in volume or mood. It’s worth hearing, and rehearing, even if not a masterpiece on the level of the other works on the program.
Wouldn’t it be great if every musical work put before the public were a masterpiece?
The masterpiece syndrome is the deadliest trap a young composer can fall into. If my string quartet isn’t equal, at least, to Beethoven’s A minor, it must be worthless. No. No. No.
Maybe some of the 17 short pieces (some flowing into each other) on the Dogs of Desire concert will turn out to be masterpieces. Probably not. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s wonderful. The Sleeping Giant composers, seemingly uninfected and uninhibited by a striving for immortality, write music of the moment, expressing what it’s like to be human in our crazy, eclectic, mixed-up time and place. Their names: Timo Andres, Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman.
Much of this music extends rock or pop idioms with the textural complexity and sophistication of high-brow Modernism. Nothing could be described as “crossover,” or even as “hybrid.” The music is sui generis, setting forth on a distinctly American and contemporary path bound by no preconceptions. Some is a little old-fashioned, by new-music standards – a few pieces deploy the current equivalent of the tape loops that were all the rage in the 1970s and early ’80s. But most of the music is bracing, exciting, and provocative, and everything was performed with commitment and enthusiasm.
Two of the instrumental works were especially appealing — the cockeyed tick-tock of Hearne’s Shizz and the slashing spikiness of Andres’ How to Pop and Lock in Thirteen Steps. Hearne’s three different settings of a short text by Charles Ives were delightfully strange. Cooper’s Sunday Calls, a setting of Chard deNiord’s poem about Alzheimer’s disease, was remarkably moving. Maybe even a masterpiece.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.