Music is the only unmediated real-time cultural experience, which makes it potentially the most emotionally powerful. But emotional reactions can be mysterious, and therefore frightening, which is why we tend to mediate music with pictures and words.
Combining music and words doesn’t necessarily diminish music’s power, but it gives the listener an expectation and a map. Our assimilation of the piece is rendered less threatening. On the one hand, as social creatures we don’t want to feel the “wrong” feeling or otherwise interpret the music the “wrong” way; on another, we’re reluctant to trust our emotional selves. What if we’re rendered “too” angry, “too” unhappy?
As a result, we labor under an unfortunate handicap: We don’t know how to listen to music that’s shorn of words or story. Contemporary classical stuff has long since abandoned the illusion, fostered in earlier centuries, that melody is king. (This is something jazz knew earlier on, but classical caught up.) Elements of rhythm, texture, timbre and more combine with the persuasive nature of form to produce emotional effects.
But we’re more sophisticated listeners. Time was when tension and release was provoked by a simple dominant-seventh to tonic progression (V7 to I); now we’re so accustomed to plangent harmonies that more work is needed to unsettle us.
The Albany Symphony’s recent week-long festival of new works, the American Music Festival, culminated in a concert Saturday at EMPAC’s stunning concert hall in which four recent works were performed, with the composers on hand to introduce them. Each work—shrewdly, effectively—was mediated by some manner of story.
In the case of Valentines, by Aaron Jay Kernis, four evocative poems by Carol Ann Duffy were the source. A theme of love-from-afar connected the choices, while the texts tended toward the deceptively conversational, thus allowing for deft moments of surprise.
Kernis, whose work has been championed by the ASO, spins songs with mordant wit, not at all shy about using big orchestral outbursts to contrast, as at the beginning of the first poem, just before the lines, “Not a red rose or a satin heart./I give you an onion.” Subtle musical irony underscored the cheeky ardency of the text, as when a solo tuba throbbed beneath “the careful undressing of love.”
An unsettling teeter-totter effect of swell and diminish characterized the music behind the narrative uncertainty in the poem “Miles Away,” while “Mrs. Midas,” a small epic at the heart of the cycle, showed a Leonard Bernstein influence with its impressive use of rhythmic change and orchestral color.
Soprano Talise Trevigne was wonderfully impressive in her performance of the difficult songs, her voice warm, her diction perfect, radiating a sense of accessibility rare in the highly trained.
The concert opened with the premiere of Holy Roller by composer-in-residence Missy Mazzoli, a short work she described as “devotional music for a non-existent religion.” An insistent piano note introduced an attempt—repeated a couple of times—to provoke a sustained orchestral passage, which soon broke forth in a Brucknerian hail of brass. A lovely labyrinthine progression ensued, highlighted by a gentle duet of cello and trumpet in front of pizzicato strings, and the cello also returned as a solo voice, at one point provoking a mellow backbeat before the brass took over again with triumphant “ta-das.”
Mazzoli has fashioned an individual voice while having assimilated the voices worth keeping in touch with, Stravinsky and Shostakovich among them.
Another kind of religious story informs Michael Daugherty’s Rosa Parks Boulevard, taking us for a ride along that Detroit thoroughfare while paying tribute to the civil rights pioneer by championing her favorite instrument (trombone) and song (“O Freedom”).
Greg Spriridopoulos, Karna Millen and Patrick Herb were placed in an upstage balcony, the bells of their horns (Herb’s the bass trombone) aimed directly at my ear level, and the resultant brassy crunch was wonderful. They intoned “O Freedom” in a variety of ways, gut-bucket included, as well as a theme describing Parks herself, which the orchestra then developed.
Were there a film to accompany the score, we’d think nothing of its discordant, percussive nature; mediated only by a story we’re asked to hold in our heads, it demands closer listening. And rewards it.
Joan Tower’s Violin Concerto was written, she explained, for Elmar Oliveira at a time when Oliveira’s brother, also a violinist, had recently died. Thus it engaged soloist and concertmaster in a couple of duet moments, paying tribute to the emotional complexity of a close filial relationship.
While Tower’s music can be forbidding—arch, even—this one-movement work proved very satisfying, exploring the solo instrument’s capabilities with masterful skill. I’m convinced she had Samuel Barber’s concerto in the back of her mind for a moment or two, especially that piece’s transition into the final movement.
Cho-Liang Lin showed no fear of the difficult solo part, which must have cost him many bow-hairs. He was joined in the duets by Jill Levy, proving once again how lucky we and the orchestra are to have her as its leader.
Speaking of fearlessness: ASO music director David Alan Miller also made his part of the deal seem effortless. It’s not. Championing unheard works in a cautious market like this one needs both skill and relentless dedication, and once again he proved her has both.