Spring Awakening

For quite some time now, the month of May has been a non-stop new music smorgasbord of annual marathon concerts, new music readings, and award ceremonies. But this year the busiest month got even busier as a result of a new week-long orchestral music festival presented at Carnegie Hall called Spring for Music which featured seven different orchestras. It promises to be an annual event. Throughout the year, Carnegie hosts orchestras from all over the country and around the world, but what makes Spring for Music different is that the participating orchestras are encouraged to come to town with their most adventurous programs—meaning a lot of contemporary music if not actually new music, many of which are local premieres. Plus tickets for each concert are only $25, which is only double the price of seeing a movie (at least here in New York City).

I managed to make it to three of the seven Spring for Music concerts. I would have attended more of them but the busiest month for new music inevitably means divided loyalties. In fact, I sadly had to miss all of this year’s MATA Festival which bizarrely changed their usual earlier time frame and also jumped on the May bandwagon. But I was thrilled to have attended at least a fraction of SfM’s offerings, if for nothing else than the incredible energy that filled the space every night. Traditionally when an out of town orchestra comes to Carnegie Hall, some die-hard fans from the home town make a special pilgrimage to be here with them. But this phenomenon is usually less apparent than when similarly loyal sports team fans make the trek for their favorite local team (concert etiquette usually precludes rabid cheerleading). For the SfM concerts, however, Carnegie clustered the out-of-town guests together in visible pockets throughout the auditorium (not sure how they did that), supplied them with color-coded handkerchiefs, and encouraged them to wave them whenever the audience applauded. It was quite a sight.

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Albany Symphony Orchestra fans rooting for their team. Photo © by Steve J. Sherman, courtesy M L Falcone Public Relations

Of course, all of this would be meaningless if the music wasn’t the main attraction. For the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s program on May 10, music by a total of nine living American composers was performed. The concert opened with an eclectic, Ivesian celebration of folk tunes by George Tsontakis, featuring authentic, jaw-dropping fiddling by Gregor Kitzis. This was followed by baritone Nathan De’Shon Myers joining the orchestra for performances of eight extremely disparate settings of traditional African American spirituals by a wide range of composers. Some of the composers chosen to participate in this endeavor were extremely unexpected, and the results were often poignant as in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” whose lyric about displacement took on a whole new meaning in the setting by Bun Ching Lam, who was born in Macao and now divides her time between France and the United States. After the eight, they performed a ninth spiritual setting by Tsontakis, framing the first half of the concert with his music. After intermission came Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland; hardly standard DWEM fare.

But the concert the following night totally raised the bar. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus devoted their entire intermission-less program to the first New York performance of an emotionally powerful oratorio called August 4, 1964, which was inspired by the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that led to the USA’s escalation of intervention in Vietnam, and the discovery of the bodies of three slain civil rights workers in Mississippi, both of which happened on that same fateful day. Forty-seven years later, the ramifications of these two events continue to shape our national psyche. The text was by Gene Scheer, who has written numerous opera librettos and is also a composer in his own right. But the music for this work was created by Steven Stucky. Since he is the chair of the Board of Directors of the American Music Center, Stucky has not yet been able to receive the full-on coverage in NewMusicBox that his music deserves. But I must make an exception this once to single out his accomplishment here, which to my ears calls to mind Paul Hindemith’s landmark When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d – A Requiem for Those We Love, a work originally composed in response to the death of FDR, and which became a memorial to all of the dead in World War II. Like Hindemith’s Lilacs, Stucky’s music is a remarkable conduit for group reflection and, hopefully, healing. The entire performance is available a stream on WQXR’s website, but here’s a brief segment of it with video as well from a previous performance in Dallas.

The last of the concerts I attended was the May 13 performance by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. I was floored that they played Stravinsky’s 1946 Concerto in D for String Orchestra, A: without a conductor, and B: standing up. They sat down when they were joined by Dawn Upshaw for a performance of Maria Schneider’s Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories which was also conducted by the composer. It was wonderful to hear Schneider’s music in a different array of timbres than her jazz big band orchestrations, and her signature harmonic progressions were still very much in evidence here. But unfortunately I had to leave at intermission because I needed to be off to yet another event.

Judging from the crowds the nights I attended, SfM was a success and it is heartening to know that this success is based on performances of new works—I am glad to see that orchestras are waking up to the fact that out-of-town gigs featuring contemporary repertoire are infinitely more exciting than yet another program of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. My only reservation about all of this is, why May? For starters, there’s already so much going on this month and it has already been impossible to keep up with it all. But perhaps even more importantly than that, last week’s SfM offerings are the kind of programming orchestras should be doing both in and out of town all year round.

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