BY DAVE ALLEN The Annenberg Center at Penn is giving this city something it’ll have a hard time getting at Kimmel Center this season: modern American music. After several years of strong contemporary programming, the Philadelphia Orchestra is doing a grand total of zero works by living American composers, so the American Composers Orchestra, a New York-based group with a dual season in Philly, fills the void. The ACO’s concert Sunday night at International House featured several pieces strong enough for repertoire status, but most remarkable was that all five composers on the program were in attendance – something you’ll never see at Verizon Hall, unless the long-dead should rise.
Two works took on the traditional concerto, breaking the soloist-vs.-ensemble mold. Keeril Makan’s Dream Lightly put guitarist Seth Josel out front with an intricate, demanding role. Josel’s part focuses on harmonics, the resonant pings that come from guitar strings when struck at just the right place (think the opening of “Roundabout” by Yes). The tuning systems of the guitar and orchestra clashed through sheer physics, not from Makan’s desire to pile dissonance upon dissonance, and the waves that surged from the ensemble had an impressive blend of darkness and transparency. The precision of Josel’s playing and conductor Jeffrey Milarsky’s motions made this piece the evening’s highlight.
Fred Ho’s “Now the Real Dragons Fly!” was less successful, though Ho’s turn as baritone sax soloist was impressive. With sharp jabs of breath and haunting, hard-bitten phrases, Ho [pictured above] moved from the lowest grunts to the high shrieks not with ease, but with satisfying effort. His writing for orchestra — he admitted it was his first such venture — was weak, though. The strings flailed and the brass blatted with little relation to Ho’s solo. The percussion section had some nice touches with clashing nao bo, traditional Chinese cymbals, but the piece fell short of the charged sound Ho brought to his playing.
Another piece refracted the orchestra’s sound into an odd, attractive sheen. Greg Spears’ “Finishing” used touches of the avant-garde – wind players doubling on dog whistles, tape recorders playing back orchestra samples – to achieve a disarmingly traditional effect. Judging from Spears’ note in the program, the piece’s chiming, inviting surface satirizes the glossy finishes of books and magazines. With blocks of sound floating in the haze, including several clarion solos by trumpeter Wayne Dumaine, Spears’ piece recalled the delicate suspensions of artist Alexander Calder’s mobiles.
The works that opened and closed the program were the most traditional, utilizing just the unadorned orchestra. The opener, Kamran Ince’s “Domes,” built slowly, pairing descending violin lines with a low drone, richly delivered by the low strings. A vigorous, turbulent middle section, athletically conducted by Milarsky, gave way to a repeat of the opening’s nocturnal stillness. Concertmaster Eva Gruesser had several highly poised solos, but fuzziness in the ensemble’s entrance detracted from the performance and made it an odd choice for a curtain-raiser.
The orchestra capped the evening with a speedy but tasteful performance of Clint Needham’s Chamber Symphony. The outer movements were raucous — especially the first, with its heavy brass and cowbell — and framed a reflective middle, titled “Open-Ended Echoes.” Here Needham did away with constant pulse, the hallmark of American Minimalism, and scored a warm, throbbing movement for strings, in which all the principal players gave lovely, resonant solos. Needham said the piece was originally inspired by the 2008 presidential races, and that seemed most appropriate in the third movement, “Radiant Nation,” as speeding phrases played in canon seemed to elbow one another out of the way. Appropriate to the outcome ofNeedham’s source of inspiration, the piece ended with a big surge and a joyous noise. This composer — like Makan, Josel and this country, our very own radiant nation — is headed for big things.