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Let there be light: composer James Primosch.

Contemporary Visions

By B.A. Nilsson

Albany Symphony Orchestra

Dogs of Desire

EMPAC Concert Hall and Theater, May 21-22

The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s pursuit of new and recent works brought seven composers and six premieres to Troy last weekend for the American Music Festival. The big event, Saturday’s concert at EMPAC’s Concert Hall, featured three of those guests.

ASO conductor David Alan Miller encouraged composer James Primosch to consider a Hudson River theme for his commission, so his Luminism drew inspiration from the Hudson River School of painters and musically limned their shifting light. Primosch bookended the piece with a slow hymn from the low-voiced strings, soon reinforced by the equivalent brass. Textural details were provided, at various times, by brass and bells, flute and clarinet, both violin sections, horns over strings and plenty of exchanges between brass and the rest of the group, with a cumulative sense of mystery.

Primosch’s teacher John Harbison also was on hand to introduce a suite from Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby. True to its 1920s setting, the opera features a dance band of the era, performing idiomatic material also penned by Harbison. Those players were placed out of sight, their dance music coming to us as if from a radio. Each sequence they played was reinforced by the larger ensemble, through contrast and occasional accompaniment. It’s a fairly bouncy work that sneaks us into a better appreciation of Harbison’s compositional voice by completing it with the decades-old sound of Americana.

Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s voice was initially shaped by serialism, then released into a sort of Sibelius-meets-Shostakovich synthesis that’s very much his own. His Percussion Concerto was written for and premiered by Colin Currie last year with the London Philharmonic.

Over an uneasy tremolo in the strings, tympani rolls and glissandos set a mood broken by the first marimba figures, building over the orchestra and solo clarinet. An arpeggiated figure built in the marimba that suddenly sent Currie to the more robust-sounding vibes, moving from two to four mallets as the tension increased.

After a slow section that gave solo time to vibes and cello, the piece went into a whirlwind finish featuring the theatrical aspect of seeing Currie get in time from place to place. As is characteristic of this composer, the mood often shimmered from unsettling to sweet, but placing percussion at the center showed Rautavaara as a commanding—and playful—agent of rhythm.

The program opened with two new movements from Stacy Garrop’s Mythology Symphony: “The Lovely Sirens” and “The Fates of Man.”

A sense of foreboding is established by a conversation between horns and percussion, then a sweep of low strings leads to up-and-down violin glissandos that rise in pitch and, therefore, intensity. Once the shipwreck occurs, the movement ends in a blaze of Holst-like intensity. Those “fates of man” lead the man in question to the inevitable: As the strings drop out in clusters and a flutter-tongued trumpet sounds softly, the unhappy brass take over to lead us to a solo cello whose lament abruptly silences. Good thing there’s a fourth movement coming—this would be an awfully depressing finish.

The Dogs of Desire is the small unit drawn from within the ASO ranks that performs only commissioned works geared for the unique sound of this ensemble, which is heavy on reeds and percussion. They opened the festival Friday evening in the EMPAC Theater.

This is a smaller space than the Concert Hall, and it’s also an acoustically splendid space for music. Yet the Dogs were amplified to an astonishingly unnecessary—and physically unpleasant—degree.

Todd Reynolds is a composer-violinist who collaborated with Eric Singer, founder of the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots, for his new work Centrifuge. It features the fascinating Guitar Bot, a four-stringed contraption that plays a MIDI stream of a guitar part composed by Reynolds and fed from his onstage MacBook. Which also fed the two Mod Bots, percussion units that added split-second accents in a variety of textures. These were as fascinating to watch as to hear, yet they blended nicely with Reynolds, playing amplified violin, and the ensemble. It was a thrilling demonstration of how to put computer-driven acoustic instruments in the service of live performers.

Ted Hearne’s Is it dirty sets a 1964 poem by Frank O’Hara. Orchestrally, it has a jazzy, blues-inspired feeling, while vocalists Alexandra Sweeton and Kamala Sankaram sounded sinuous lines almost at odds with their subject—and, in this case, all the more effective.

Keeping with a theme of technology, Patrick Burke’s Everything Else saluted the idea of Nikola Tesla’s inventions, and the music hummed with engaging shifts of often syncopated activity. It was synchronized to a video display that added nothing to the work, and was nothing more than a montage of old photos over a background of sparking current.

The other new work was David Mallamud’s Electric Love: A Ragtime Opera, offering a sardonic scenario about Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and competing currents. Overlong and underfunny, it put me in mind of the annoying kid who knows one joke and torments everyone around him by telling it again and again.

Kenneth Eberhard’s Karaoke Time took the mickey out of everyone’s favorite sing-along by offering a humorous combination of text and images. A lightweight but lighthearted work, it succeeds by taking itself not at all seriously.

The opening piece, Mark Mellits’ Froot Loops, was premiered by the Dogs in 1997 and remains a cheerful buzz of activity—but the simple tech challenge of activating the conductor’s microphone proved too difficult for tech staff.

We went out with a few tried-and-true encores. As always, I applaud the Dogs’ audacity, and hope they’ll continue to push the classical-music envelope.

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