Dogs of Desire
Center of the Capital Region, March 21
The cumulative effect of a classical-music concert is easily
clouded by familiarity, where pieces present themselves as
dangerous or safe. Mozart overture: safe. Berg concerto: dangerous.
The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary-music ensemble,
the Dogs of Desire, presented eight world premieres last weekend,
all of them commissioned by the group. Talk about dangerous!
Musically, there was nowhere to hide, and the 99-seat theater
in the Arts Center holds you pretty well captive, too, especially
when it’s packed to the brim, as was the case for both of
the performances that night.
I saw the early show, and found every aspect of it impressive.
The works themselves proved what a vast range of style and
sound falls into the category of classical music; the programming
demonstrated that the leap from one “dangerous” work to another
is itself exciting.
At his most Leonard Bernstein-like, conductor David Alan Miller
introduced the theme of the concert: four American and four
Dutch composers capturing a sense of the cultural identities
of their native countries, as well as a look at the other
country’s culture. And he put it in the context of the 350th
anniversary of the founding of Albany as the Dutch settlement
There were great contrasts among the works, such as the succession
from Patrick David Clark’s witty Spel to Barbara Okma’s
Straight. Spel, drawing its text from a 1952
Homemakers Encyclopedia’s advice on how to train young
children, sounded at times as if it had crawled out of the
’50s. “We always try to do the right thing; this way, that
way, wrong way! Attention! And follow the rules!” barks the
text, sung in appealing harmony by vocalists Alexandra Sweeton
and Barbara Hannigan; with the wryness of Poulenc and the
wash of sound of an old educational-movie soundtrack, American-born
Clark cannily paralleled his own experience studying in Holland,
where “they like to put the wrong notes in,” and he was strongly
urged to do so.
You could say there were wrong notes a-plenty in Straight,
but Okma’s purpose was to summon mood through texture. Each
instrument was confined to three notes—low, high and in-between—and
the dynamic range also seemed to follow three levels. What
started as a three-chord progression picked up rhythmic intensity,
and this fascinating swirl of sound eased to a gentle finish.
“I wanted it to be very Dutch,” said the composer, a Holland
native. “Very controlled. Not too involving.”
ASO composer-in-residence Derek Bermel’s At the End of
the World set a modern, existentialist poem to compelling
music with a hint of Shostakovich in its use of chorales that
suddenly turn unfriendly. Bermel showed great accomplishment
in setting voice with orchestra, and drew marvelous effects
from the players, such as the use of string harmonics.
Charles Coleman’s use of a vocal setting, in Pavement,
was similarly effective. A tribute to his native New York,
it set a Walt Whitman text describing a promenading Broadway
throng. The two singers began in unison, breaking into harmony
as the text and setting grew more animated. Tension was underscored
by an insistent drumbeat—a device used repeatedly throughout
the evening—and string ostinatos, while the melodic and harmonic
language seemed close to an intelligent version of Broadway
theater tradition, as if Sondheim suddenly went for broke.
Although Michel van der Aa hails from Holland, he chose to
capture the essence of life’s many cycles in In Circles:
“You find you go through the same things over and over,” he
explained, “like always finding the same girlfriend.” He saluted
American culture with the use of “a really cheap mono cassette
deck,” with which singer Hannigan recorded and replayed sections
of the piece, thus weaving a tinny echo of the music through
the music, at times pairing the two to haunting effect.
Composer John Korsrud is a Canadian who studied with Andriessen
for two years. As a jazz trumpeter, he incorporated a sense
of improvisation into Chrome Oxide to satisfy his insistence
that “music should be intensely . . . something.” A swinging
drumbeat combined with the more formal sound of rising arpeggios
and bursts of brass, all purposefully drifting in and out
of sync as Miller cued the various sections. It was a Raymond
Scott tune gone amok, a reminder that there’s plenty of room
in this music for things to seem wrong and still sound accomplished.
wrote a piece about failure,” said Kevin Beavers. “It’s about
somebody who can’t match his socks but who wants to be a smooth
as Derek Bermel.” Something Like That starts with the
feel of an 18th-century overture, territory also mined by
William Bolcom, but soon strays into gimpy jazziness complete
with written-in mistakes.
An endearing work with a surprisingly gentle finish, it set
the stage for David Dramm’s Beverwijck Overture, the
one work that perfectly satisfied the commission with its
setting of a 17th-century text by a Dutch ship’s captain who
sighted a white whale in the Albany harbor and didn’t know
what to make of it. “He blew water up out of his head,” the
captain wrote, and that line was caressed by singer Hannigan
over an instrumental texture that prolonged her pitches even
as a trombone pedal suggested the fury of such a beast. That
ever-present ticking of a drumbeat brought it to an end, the
final line—“Only God knows what it means”—a suitably portentous
Excellent performances and an enthusiastic interaction with
Miller and the composers (all of whom were present) made this
as vital an event as the classical music world can hope to
come up with. Limiting it to an audience of 200 probably was
shrewd, but the program was ill-served in that nobody else
saw fit to review it. Too dangerous for the critics, perhaps?