This past Tuesday, Sept 23rd at 6p in the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players presented the first of two concerts featuring works commissioned as part of the NSO’s ‘American Residency’ program. Works by four composers from four states gave us musical portraits of those states. Having now heard some 8% (by item and roughly by time) of the result of this project, some assessment as to its artistic success, or at least its agenda is possible. Considering the programs as a whole will need to wait a while.
The partnership between the NSO and state art agencies for concerts and outreach programs, and establishes a statewide competition for the commissioning of a new work with the expressed goal of ‘directly representing’ their state. Eight winners of this mimesis sweepstakes are having their music performed this week and next. This week’s concert featured the world premieres of Virko Baley’s Centos (Nevada), Stephen Yarbrough’s Dakota Diary (South Dakota), Katherine Ann Murdock’s Unquiet Night (Kansas), and Currents by Robert G. Patterson (Tennessee); on Tuesday the 30th, Philip Carlsen’s Maine Traveler’s Advisory (Maine), David Maslanka’s Blue Mountain Meadow, Missoula, MT (Montana), Jay Vosk’s Canyons (Arizona), and Michael Wittgraf’s The Nature of a Circle: The Cycle of Lewis and Clark (North Dakota) will be featured.
Presented in conjunction with the Performing Arts for Everyone program, this event was transported (thank God!) from the usual venue of the Kennedy Centers Millennium Dome to the Terrace Theater, a far more acoustically appropriate and aesthetically pleasing environment. There are numerous frames for considering and discussing this concert; it is at once a collecting of individual pieces which can be considered in their own terms, a concert presentation in which brings diverse works into conversation, a cross-section of American contemporary chamber music, and an annual report on the state of the American Residency program. We’ll hold on some of these larger issues until next weeks concert, so let’s consider the works qua works for a moment:
Virko Bailey’s Centos is essentially elegiac and thanatological, a memoriam of a deceased college and a contemplation of death in general. A spiky and thorny post tonal rhetoric dominates, with occasional sharp attacks and rises in energy, lending an air of late Romantic expressionism. The patchwork structure is quite compelling in the moment, and provides great variety over the works 15 or so minutes. The large scale structure, however, remained a bit obscure to this listener; collage works tend to provide formal challenges to listeners and performers alike, and one (i.e. me) suspects that this lack of clarity stems from the performance rather than the work itself, but more on that later.
Stephen Yarbrough’s Dakota Diary seemed to take the command to ‘directly represent’ his home state to heart, and then some. With imagistic movement titles evoking the open plains and their seemingly inevitable windy-ness, the work has a force hoe-down sensibility incessantly offering you lemonade and apple pie with an aw-shucks smile while chewing a blade of grass. The result is a tedious amalgam of facile Copland lifts, interminably four-square phrasing, and an adherence to a banal neo-tonal idea of harmony, which is a desanguinated mockery of the actual richness and variety of tonal practice.
Katherine Ann Murdock’s Unquiet Night is described by the composer as ‘reflecting’ but not ‘being about’ the May 2007 tornado in Greensburg, Kansas. With such a departure point, one might have expect a work of more violent affect, but as with the Bailey, a generally elegiac and pensive mood prevails. The works instrumental forbear, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is referenced directly and evoked obliquely, but the ‘frozen music’ of Varése also comes to mind, with single notes intensified through re-articulations and dynamic swells, all the while serving as focal point for the shifting masses and voids of the other instruments. This is a rich work, well deserving of additional performances.
Robert G. Patterson’s Currents was for my money the strongest work of the evening. Compact, varied, and with carefully considered textures, this was true chamber music, not an attempt to coax a symphonic sound and language out of an altogether different ensemble. Most notably, Currents had a form which pulled a listener along with significance accruing across the entire time-span of the piece. Playfully percussive use of the piano and the propulsive use of rhythmic motives coupled with an intense harmonic language and soaring melodic lines produced a piece in parts casual, in parts profound and beautiful throughout.
The performances were strong, though all suffered from the perennial new music Dress Rehearsal Syndrome (DRS). The performers of the NSO Chamber Players, particularly Lisa Emenheiser (piano) and Ed Cabarga (clarinet), played with expertise and energy, but the overall performances lacked polish and clear projection of the works’ large scale organization. DRS is the result of conventional calculus of rehearsal scheduling– these musicians are superb artists making good faith efforts to present this music in the best manner possible, but the perennial challenge of performing new works is to have interrogated their musical possibilities fully, and come to strongly held conclusions about how to play them. This takes skill and commitment but it also takes time. It would be nice to hear these works again, after time for consideration, evaluation and re-rehearsal; it would be wonderful to hear these musicians move past concerns of accuracy and into the realm of interpretation.
Accuracy in portraiture is not, in the end the goal, certainly with something as abstract as the state of contemporary chamber Music in America. A better framing of the question is to consider the mode of this portraiture— is this the state portrait, idealized, safe and a bit dull, or is this the photojournalistic snapshot, full of detail and energy and slightly messy. A full consideration will have to wait until next week (or till all 50 works resulting from the program are performed) but even from this small sample, some patterns can be seen as emerging.
The long standing American fixation with bartokesque metrical play was present in spades, though (typically) never as intense (or hard to perform as well). There was, however, no exploration of the free time of the post-Lutoslawskian Europeans, or the suspended time of the Die neue Einfachheit, or the metric and temporal impositions that the post-minimal, genre crossing youngsters these days seem to love so much. Beats were beats and bars were bars.
There was a strong commitment to the forms and rhetorics of ‘art-music;’ in reading the composers’ notes, the biggest technical issue informing the construction of these works have been whether the work would be multiple or single movements, issues one expects to hear in discussions of the Sonatas of Beethoven and Liszt. Interesting, to be sure, but not incredibly current, it seems.
Most striking to me was the lack of an engagement with the ‘new sound resources’ which Partch, Cowell and Crumb established as a veritable definition of American new music. Apart from a few reaches inside the piano in the Patterson, the concept of instrumentality seemed more rooted in the 19th than the 21st century.
We will wait and see and hear how these strands of American musical thought are represented or not represented on Tuesday. One hopes, though, that the Kennedy Center will actually bother to include biographies of the composers; oversights like that calls into doubt the sincerity of the entire project, and lends the event the air of contractual obligation.
The next concert of the NSO Chamber Players American Residency Commissions will be presented at the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center at 6pm on September 30th.
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