On Outside, Looking In: Music Honors Cultures At Margins Of Society

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Mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams, accordionist Felipe Hostins, and conductor Rei Hotoda appeared with the American Composers Orchestra. (Photos by Jennifer Taylor)

NEW YORK – Life is a cabaret. It’s also a struggle for outsiders, and that struggle has long acted as creative inspiration in the arts. The American Composers Orchestra (ACO) explored that inspiration in their concert March 12 at Zankel Hall, called America in Weimar: On the Margins. The program was part of Carnegie Hall’s seasonal theme, “Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice.”

Under conductor Rei Hotoda, the ACO presented works that interpreted the concept of margins in various ways. There was a blending of jazz with classical music, some songs representing exile, a work about the shared borders of nature and human occupancy, a “meditation on time” that grows directly out of a Weimar composer’s work, and an ecstatic celebration of a marginalized people.

The program opened in spectacular fashion with American composer George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony, originally written for full orchestra in 1925 but presented here in the composer’s 1955 version for a chamber orchestra of about 20 players, mostly winds, brass, and percussion. Hotoda conducted from the piano, which anchored the band with ragtime riffs, sometimes fighting against fragments of joyously blatting New Orleans jazz or sultry cabaret melodies in different tempos and meters. It’s a wild, raucous work that acted like a triple espresso to the audience, keying us up and getting us ready for anything.

The world premiere of Tonia Ko’s ‘Her Land, Expanded‘ included videos by Alexandra Cuesta.

ACO artistic director Curtis Stewart explained from the stage the reason for programming two Morton Gould orchestrations of Duke Ellington standards (“Sophisticated Lady” and “Solitude”): Ellington was one of many African-American artists who found greater acceptance in Europe — including Berlin — than they did at home. That’s valid, but the intense sweetness of Gould’s re-imaginings removed the darkness and pain that makes these songs great. The orchestra committed admirably to Gould’s vision, especially the silky muted strings; they would have fit in perfectly in the lush score of an MGM musical from the 1940s.

Right Now, a world-premiere song cycle by composer John Glover and librettist Kelley Rourke, offered the most direct connection to the Weimar arts scene of the 1920s. As a prologue, mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams sang “Pirate Jenny” from Kurt Weill/Bertoldt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera with accordionist Felipe Hostins, who wrote the arrangement. That tale of a marginalized woman (as Glover sees it) ended a few lines early — as Jenny answers the question “Kill them now or later?” with the line “Right now!” — and segued without a break into the first song of Right Now, as the orchestra joined in.

Composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and his son, Heloha, chanting.

Rourke’s four poems are image-rich abstractions about the coming of the end, by turns fearing a grim fate, then acquiescing to its inevitability, then railing against it, and finally allowing in glimmers of hope. Glover set the texts for voice, accordion, and orchestra; he unearthed imaginative layers of sounds, from rhythmically amorphous rumblings in the strings against a lyrical melody, to stretched-out triads in the accordion, to fraught harmonies buzzing under a soaring vocal line.

Williams’ voice is powerful, with a wide expressive range. She also has a dignified stage presence that didn’t falter even when the hem of her diaphanous black cape became stuck under Hotoda’s heel as she passed the podium, trapping her for a good 20 seconds until she (gracefully) got the conductor’s attention.

Less successful was the other world premiere, Tonia Ko’s Her Land, Expanded for orchestra and video. Ko’s collaborator in this Carnegie co-commission was designer Alexandra Cuesta. Together they told a story about nature being taken over by humans, who lose their place to nature’s re-encroachment. Cuesta’s technique of intercutting microsecond-long bits of film was intriguing, like a live-action twist on stop-motion animation. But the tale she told was simplistic: close-ups of plants in the woods (Eden before Adam?), more and more of a woman’s face (the innocent co-existence of humans?), traffic jams (humans as bad), urban housing with people strolling between buildings (humans maybe not so bad, but no plants anywhere?). Then plants were superimposed at the margins, gradually taking over again.

Ko’s music shed little light on the matter. While it was interesting to learn that her sonic inspiration had been the digital deconstruction of church bells she’d recorded in Switzerland, the result was blips and squiggles of sound that didn’t hold together into a meaningful whole. Based on its relationship to the video, it seems that the snare drum represented the growing presence of humanity, with its harsh sibilance and metalicism. Both musically and visually, the execution of this work’s underlying idea lacked depth.

The program came to a glorious close with the New York premiere of Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s “Clans,” the fourth of eight scenes from his work Lowak Shoppala’, paying tribute to the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, of which he is a citizen. Tate recited nine poems about the matrilinear clan system of his people. Each poem had orchestral accompaniment and was followed by a refrain that Tate chanted with his young son, Heloha. Chickasaw clans are named after animals and have official “regalia” (stylized costumes hand-sewn by Margaret Wheeler) representing that animal, which were worn by tribal members striding around the audience after greeting the Minko (Chief), who stood imperiously onstage in his traditional garb.

Malcom Smith, center, who played Minka (Chief) in the Tate work, takes a bow.

Tate’s orchestral writing has the majesty of Vaughan Williams flavored with the scales and rhythmic patterns of Native traditions. The orchestra and Hotoda embraced their role as a malleable sonic runway for what Tate himself described as a kind of fashion show. The twittering flutes for “Bird (Foshi’)” swirled as if the wind had caught them; “Squirrel (Fani’)” got a skittering scherzo; a horn fanfare welcomed in the mighty “Panther (Kowishto’ Losa’)”; Tate’s own clan, “Raccoon (Shawi’),” was syncopated and humorous. It felt like a privilege to be in the presence of this ritual.

The next installment in Carnegie Hall’s “Fall of the Weimar Republic” series will be Max Raabe and his big band, Palast Orchester, on March 21. For information and tickets, go here.