Concert Review: Music U.

American Symphony Orchestra's MUSIC U

Oberon's Grove

Sunday April 19th, 2015 - This note from the press release describes the inspiration for today's programme, entitled 'MUSIC U', by the American Symphony Orchestra: "In a country without kings and courts, universities have served as the patrons for many of America’s greatest composers." Leon Botstein and the ASO were joined by the Cornell University Glee Club & Chorus in a celebration of five Ivy League composers.

Performing a cappella under the direction of Robert Isaacs, the young singers from Cornell displayed a lovely vocal blend in the heavenly harmonies of this slow, lilting choral miniature. The gentle pace quickens somewhat near the work's end, but falls back into calm with a very sustained final note that hung on the air.

After a rather long pause, the concert continued with the oldest work (late 19th century) on the programme: the cantata Dream-King and his Love by Horatio Parker (above), one-time Dean of Music at Yale. This cantata won first prize in its category in a competition judged by Dvořák himself. A fanciful romantic text tells the tale of a maiden visited in her dream by a kingly lover.

The work is melody-filled and seems to echo some of the exotic works of Jules Massenet. From the lyrical opening (the harp is prominent) thru passages dance-like, rapturous, and triumphant by turns, the music opens out like a perfumed lotus blossom. The naturally youthful sound of tenor soloist Phillip Fargo fell pleasingly in the ear, and the singers from Cornell again gave of their best.

The Symphony No. 2 by George Rochberg (above), who ran the music department at the University of Pennsylvania, was the longest work on the programme. Composed in 1955-1956, this symphony today sounds like a generic work from an era when classical music was not quite sure what direction it was headed in. It's a big-scale piece, one which seems to take itself very seriously. One can sense such influences as Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Schönberg in the writing, and the composer's fine craftsmanship is never in doubt. Yet despite its rhythmic variety and interesting sonic textures - oboe and horns are well-employed - the piece seemed over-extended. Melody is pretty much banished - a promising duet passage for two violas evaporated after a few seconds - and although melody is not essential, it is inevitably gratifying. Maestro Botstein's commitment to the work and the excellent playing of the ASO - many fleeting bits of solo work are strewn throughout the score - made as strong a case for the symphony as one could hope to hear.

Music for Cello and Orchestra by Harvard’s Leon Kirchner


...with soloist Nicholas Canellakis (above) opened the second half of the concert. The cellist is a frequent participant in Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's superb concerts.

Today, Kirchner's music seemed to me to have found what was missing from the Rochberg: a connection to the heart. Throughout the Kirchner, the solo cello gives his piece a sense of unity and purpose that - to my ears - the Rochberg lacks. Kirchner's orchestration is colorful and dense, with excellent use of percussion, and the music sometimes takes on a cinematic quality. I love hearing a piano mixed into an orchestral ensemble work, and at the reference to TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, my friend Adi and I exchanged smiles.

Mr. Canellakis was simply breathtaking right from the cello's passionate opening statement. He was deeply involved in the music, moving seamlessly from a gleaming upper register to the soulful singing of his middle range. Capable of both redolent lyricism and energetic, jagged flourishes, Nicholas's playing seemed so at home in the venerable Hall. The audience gave him lusty and well-deserved round of applause as he was called back to the stage after his exceptional performance.

The chorus then returned to the stage for the concert's grand finale: the world premiere of Cantares by Roberto Sierra (above), which Cornell University commissioned for this concert in celebration of their 150th anniversary. In this panoramic work, the cultures of the African, Spanish, Native Peruvian, and Aztec peoples are entwined in vivid musical settings of texts dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The composer has re-imagined these invocations and narratives for the contemporary world; for this piece, the Cornell choristers leapt readily from Quechua to Spanish.

A long sustained tone opens Cantares; then, emerging from dark turbulence, the chorus begins to 'speak'. A trumpet call, a wandering xylophone, a celestial harp, an oddly ominous rattle: these are all heard as kozmic sound-clouds drift by. The music is mystical and - with the under-pacing of rhythmic chant - takes on an other-worldly feeling.

The second movement evokes African ritual and that continent's ancient connection to Cuba. The music seems to echo thru time in its heavenly, ecstatic vibrations. Somehow Chausson's Poeme de l'amour et de la Mer came to mind.

An orchestral interlude has the flutter of birdsong and a dense-jungle yet transparent appeal and leads into the final Suerte lamentosa, an epic of dueling cultures told from both the winners' and the losers' points of view.

The work is perhaps a trifle too long, but the composer has been successful in drawing us to contemplate the oft-forgotten (or ignored) events surrounding the injection of Christianity into the Western Hemisphere. And musically it's truly brilliant.


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