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The University of North Carolina School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra performed in Crawford Hall, but this time, the performers were not the focus of the concert. Instead, UNCSA's student composers Connor May Kelly, Allison Deanhardt, Christian Wray, and Drew Banzhoff had the spotlight, each having a work of their own performed by the orchestra.
The program started with Kelly's Poe in Northlight, under the direction of Tim Heath. Despite its title, the piece is not about Edgar Allan Poe, but about Carl L. Anderson's book of the same name, which explores the late 19th century Scandinavian response to Poe's life and works. A very specific concept, to say the least, but that specificity is what inspired Kelly to write the piece. The work started boldly but quickly moved into a lighter, floating section. There were times when it was dark and introspective, but hints of light shone through. Out of the stormy drama, the music arose even stronger than when it started. All together, these elements created an experience that was not anything like Poe's works or his life, leading me to wonder if there was a possibility that late 19th-century Scandinavians had a completely different approach to the writer. Poe in Northlight gave me goosebumps, but it is the way that Kelly's music still has me contemplating how the music reflected the subject of the book, even after the concert, that is most impressive.
Following Kelly was Deanhardt's Introspection Through Dawn, which lived up to its name. Under the direction of Mark Norman, the piece began with a double bass feature – a welcome surprise. It took on a misty, unclear feeling, similar to an early morning fog. The piece had each section of the orchestra become its own "choir," joining together one by one to weave a tapestry of sound. There were moments of calm and moments of calamity, reflecting the free-flowing nature of our thoughts. These moments built throughout the piece, creating a clearer picture as it moved along and culminated in a fanfare signaling the rising of the sun. I appreciated Deanhardt's ability to weave that detailed "tapestry" which allowed the audience to focus on whichever section of the orchestra they wished and still be able to find something interesting.
The penultimate piece of the program, also conducted by Norman, was Wray's Return to Dust. Wray offered the most unique soundscape of the night, employing uncommon techniques on the string and wind instruments to create the exact effect he desired – that of rising from the dust, gathering energy, and returning to the dust we came from. Return to Dust started by having the winds simply blow air through their instruments, forming the wind that moved the dust of the strings, who only played loud enough to be heard, but no louder. Throughout, the energy would rise and fall, creating increasingly cataclysmic walls of sound until the tone changed with the introduction of a swirl of open intervals. These intervals gave off glimmers of light that built to the final, dramatic opening of the clouds as all the light burst into the scene with a huge chord, only to return to exactly where the piece started: dust. I was moved by Wray's work not only because it was a great piece of music, but also because it is one of the rare works of art that does not simply impose the thoughts and feelings of the composer on the listener but challenges them to question their own thoughts and feelings, and to contemplate their own existence.
The final piece of the night was Banzhoff's Terran Wars: Scenes from the Frontlines, Op. 22, conducted by Banzhoff himself. Banzhoff took us down the sci-fi route to finish the night, evoking the image of future conflicts between hyper-evolved civilizations trying to conquer worlds. Specifically, the work depicts the Terrans (humans) fighting off their invaders. The tension of the piece built for its entire duration, starting with more sparse textures and leading into the arrival of and battles with the alien armies, while also bringing out the mystery of those alien civilizations through the music. Then the piece came to an abrupt end. Banzhoff said that writing about the future was appealing because of the creative freedom and openness to interpretation, so the abrupt ending can have a multitude of meanings. Is it the end of the world? The end of civilization? The end of the war? Who knows – it is the future. That openness makes the piece even more fun.
Hearing performances of works by composers who are my age was extremely exciting and energizing. The UNCSA Symphony Orchestra did a great job of bringing the notes off the page and giving life to the music the composers wrote as well. I am usually uneasy about the term "New Music," because you never know what you are going to get, whether it be good or bad. But, if "New Music" will be written by artists like Kelly, Deanhardt, Wray, and Banzhoff, then the future is in good hands.