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A Celebration of the Composer with the American Composers Orchestra

by Robert Leeper

George Manahan Conducting
George Manahan, Photo Credit: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Organizations that further the careers of young composers are plentiful these days, but the American Composers Orchestra takes its support a step further with its Underwood New Music Readings, offering a rare peek behind the curtain of what it takes to bring a new orchestral work to the stage. Seven new works - chosen from hundreds of entries - received a run-through last Thursday evening at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, with George Manahan conducting the ACO.

Sitting just in front of the seven composers were several “mentor composers,” including ACO artistic director Derek Bermel, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Kevin Puts. Despite casual dress from the orchestra and the educational setting, much was at stake: one of the composers was to be awarded a $15,000 commission to write a work for the ACO, to be performed next season.

This being a working read through after just one rehearsal, the performances were far from polished. That said, there were certainly some noticeable trends - most notably, the lack of dense, serial music à la Schoenberg or Pierre Boulez. Despite the occasional odd rhythmic turn or timbral innovation, the works leaned heavily toward late Romanticism and Impressionism.

Of particular note was David Hertzberg’s Spectre of the Spheres. Inspired by the Wallace Steven poem The Auroras of Autumn which uses the image of a thrashing serpent to represent the Northern Lights, the orchestra’s restless harmonies swirl around a chiming celesta, which is both at the center of and unattached to the sounds around it.

Yuanyuan He's Passeig de Gràcia evoked the titular Barcelona street through lavish orchestration and alluring color. Shadows of the Studio, a vivid programmatic work by Jules Pegram, traced a trip through the golden age of film with sweeping themes and shouting brass choruses before fading into a somber conclusion.

Other pieces featured more specific musical explorations. Igor Santos’ play, pivot took on extreme timbral contrasts, while Polina Nazaykinskava’s Nature’s Book of Life explored the sense of mystery in the musical world found between words.

Complex, dissonant chords slowly elaborated on a melodic fragment from Alban Berg’s Schlafend tragt man mich in David Mettens’ Sleeping I am carried. Carl Schimmel's Two Variations on Ascent into the Empyrean brought the evening to an ecstatic end as a rocket drawn by his three year old son inspired the orchestra to blast of into another world.

Perhaps due to the workshop nature of the program, the program notes didn't measure up to  the quality of the works on display, grasping for poetic concepts that would have been better left to the musical imagination.