By Michael Huebner
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – A decade ago, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and its support group, Sound Investment, began a fruitful coalition that has produced annual composer residencies in this Southern city. Three works by Paul Lansky, two of them ASO commissions, were premiered, and in 2009-10, Lansky, the Princeton-based composer whose music previously centered on electronic and computer music, became ASO’s first composer-in-residence. Since then, the Sound Investment program has worked to ensure that premieres, commissions, and composers are embedded in each season.
In 2018-19, the residency fell to Martin Kennedy, a 40-year-old Alabama native whose credentials include performances by the Royal Philharmonic and the Orchestra Teatro Communale di Bologna plus numerous prizes and awards. His first ASO commission, Forest Dark and Stars Above, a work roughly inspired by Dante’s Inferno, was unveiled Nov. 1 at the Alys Stephens Center in Birmingham. Stylistically, Kennedy’s body of work is all over the map. It runs the gamut from neo-romantic to microtonal and concerti and sonatas to electronic. Forest Dark is “maybe a little more conservative,” he told a gathering of ASO supporters a few days before the premiere. “Nowadays composers don’t have to stick to a certain style, and it’s not a great idea. I don’t want someone to say, ‘that sounds like Kennedy.'”
Forest Dark is scored for full orchestra and a large battery of percussion that includes “assorted cutlery bound together in a bag.” It suggests a symphonic poem but doesn’t quite fit that genre. It is 12 minutes of lush orchestration, soaring, angular melodies, dramatic ebbs and flows, and a wide variety of instrumental combinations and colors.
Kennedy is a gifted melodist with a solid sense of timing and of tension and release. The somber opening, characterized by variations on a four-note theme, rumbling low strings, and a plaintive oboe solo, gives way to an atmospheric, at times evocative, progression of textures. Dense strings, powerful brass, and dissonant harmonies reflect struggle. Locating the demonic imagery and frightful tales of Dante’s and Virgil’s hellish journey might require a wild imagination, so listeners would be well advised to focus on Kennedy’s orchestral hues and melodic invention.
The concert also included Philip Glass’ strings-only Symphony No. 3, the 1995 opus that longs for film accompaniment. For the most part, it is not as tonally stagnant as some early Glass, but some might still find themselves zoning in and out of its mesmeric repetitions. Its interest lies primarily in the metric maze and cascading modes of the second movement, appropriately titled “Movement II,” and playful descending scales and metric play that suggest Indian talas. Music director Carlos Izcaray deftly mastered the technical difficulties of the score, infusing it with drama and luster. Violinist Mayumi Masri’s third-movement solo added atmospheric brilliance.
The concert was part of ASO’s three-concert Sound Edge Festival, an outgrowth of previous series that have strayed from tradition. This year featured bandoneonist Raul Jaurena in a mostly Piazzolla chamber music concert and groundbreaking electric guitarist Steve Vai performing with the orchestra. In February, ASO and soloist Winston Choi are slated to perform Kennedy’s Piano Concerto. In three years, the Alabama Symphony will celebrate its centennial. Although plans for the event haven’t been announced, the orchestra’s direction during the last decade has been clear: it does not linger in the past but is unquestionably committed to advancing 21st-century music. Expect more of that commitment.
That’s not to say the orchestra’s traditional repertoire has fallen by the wayside. In the spring, a complete Beethoven symphony cycle will be heard – for the fourth time since 2006. For Izcaray, who recently renewed his contract through the 2022-23 season, it is his first such endeavor with the orchestra, although he has proven himself an insightful Beethoven interpreter on several occasions in his first three seasons. More recently, at its current season opener on Oct. 19, the ASO solidified its position as a dynamic and flexible ensemble in a program of Strauss, Poulenc, and Bartók that bodes well for the orchestra and its conductor.
Alabama Symphony composers-in-residence:
2009-10 Paul Lansky
2010-11 Avner Dorman
2011-12 Edgar Meyer
2012-13 Judd Greenstein
2013-14 Hannah Lash
2014-15 Ellis Ludwig-Leone
2015-16 Paul Desenne
2016-17 Susan Botti
2017-18 Carlos Izcaray
2018-19 Martin Kennedy
Formerly the classical music critic and fine arts reporter for the Birmingham News and AL.com, Michael Huebner now writes for artsBHAM.com, a website devoted to arts coverage in Birmingham. Before coming to Alabama, he wrote freelance for the Kansas City Star and Austin American-Statesman.