By William Littler
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Yes, Alexander Hamilton was married there and two Roosevelts occupied the governor’s mansion, but Albany, N.Y., isn’t ordinarily thought of as where it is happening, whatever it happens to be.
Somehow, that preconception has yet to reach the stage of the Palace Theater, where the Albany Symphony, under the energetic leadership of David Alan Miller (music director since 1992), has been going about the business of redefining what it means to be an American symphony orchestra.
Evidence of this effort was brought to Washington on April 11 through the orchestra’s participation in the Kennedy Center’s second SHIFT Festival (presented in collaboration with Washington Performing Arts), affording Albany’s mayor, Kathy M. Sheehan, the opportunity to declare her city “the capital of modern American music.”
Hyperbole? Perhaps not. For one thing, the Washington concert consisted entirely of contemporary American music and it is shortly to be followed on the players’ calendar by the American Music Festival in Troy, N.Y.
Moreover, as part of its Washington visit, the orchestra’s cutting-edge ensemble within an ensemble, Dogs of Desire, offered, within the garishly painted walls of a once-derelict church, what might be described as a 21st-century American Liederabend, with Theo Bleckmann variously vocalizing “a whole bunch of stuff,” as the program put it, from Charles Ives to Kate Bush.
While many other orchestras, eyeing the graying of audience hair, seek salvation in the standard repertory, the Albany Symphony, with a pattern of commissions and associations with living composers, seeks to expand it, reaching out to new audiences along the way.
All four pieces on its Kennedy Center Concert Hall program were composed within the last few years, although, in common with so much music in this postmodern period, they might easily have been written decades ago.
Joan Tower’s Still/Rapids found the soon-to-be-80-year-old composer producing a two-movement piano concerto (handsomely played by Joyce Yang) contrasting a short, rather meditative opening movement with a longer, more rhythmic, angular, and virtuosic second. Invited to the stage to introduce the music, Tower eschewed Schenkerian analysis to declare, “It’s still water and rapids and it’ll last 17 minutes.”
Continuing the aquatic theme – the concert program bore the title The River Flows Through Us – Michael Daugherty’s Reflections on the Mississippi (2013) evokes childhood memories of family visits to the mighty river in a series of four descriptive movements, cumulatively producing, of all things, a 20-minute tuba concerto.
Confidently played by Carol Jantsch, principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the concerto embraces its share of dissonances, polyrhythms, and kindred modernist gestures while giving a mellow, melody-driven profile to what the American satirical writer Peter De Vries once called “the most intestinal of instruments.”
An army of children from three Washington-area choruses (Voices of Glassmanor, National Cathedral Lower School Guild, and Children’s Chorus of Washington) joined the orchestra to perform The Mighty Erie Canal, a children’s operetta based on the story of the history-changing waterway, with folkish music by Dorothy Chang and words contributed in part by New York elementary school students.
Charming in its simplicity, it seemed an unusual choice for such an occasion but testimony to the Albany Symphony’s outreach to the community.
One might argue that Three Manhattan Bridges compromised the consistency of the evening’s water theme, but in describing the work, Michael Torke (who, like Joan Tower and Michael Daugherty, arrived in person to introduce his piece) helpfully pointed out that the George Washington, Queensboro, and Brooklyn are all bridges over water.
Although individually characterized – the George Washington in its typical busyness, the Queensboro in a nocturnal mood, and the Brooklyn with touches of jazz – the three movements collectively formed a big-boned romantic piano concerto, returning its dedicatee, the impressive Joyce Yang, to the stage.
Together with the other works on the program, it scarcely pointed the way to the future, but it did showcase the Albany Symphony as an enterprising champion of the eclectic, nostalgic American present.
William Littler, veteran music columnist of the Toronto Star, also teaches at the Royal Conservatory of Music and is co-author of a recent history of Toronto’s principal concert hall, Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait.