You would think that by the time the year 2006 rolled around, we would have gotten over the concept that we are pioneers just for listening to concert music written in the very recent past. But despite the lip service given to the importance of supporting and encouraging contemporary composers, most orchestras will still not put their good intentions into their subscription programs. More the reason for applauding the North Carolina Symphony (NCS) for this bold foray into an all-American-composers-born-after-1960 presentation. On January 19 in Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, the NCS began a three-concert run featuring the music of Michael Torke, Edgar Meyer, and Jennifer Higdon. There was no token big-name modernist sandwiched between Brahms and Beethoven to assuage those calling for some balance. This was the whole shebang, and everyone loved it.
The "difficulty" of newly-written works and the reticence of most major orchestras to program one, let alone an entire concert devoted to them, is certainly no secret. So NCS Music Director Grant Llewellyn gave everyone in the audience a big, virtual pat-on-the-back for having the "courage" to come out and hear and support living American composers. Perhaps someday the conductor won't have to make such speeches, as well-intentioned as they might be, prior to such works.
The first young kid up at bat was Michael Torke, one of the more successful of the new breed who chooses to recognize popular musical influences and not hide from them. Almost all of Torke's compositions have some color in their title, and he comes from a long line of composers who believe that certain musical keys evoke particular colors. "Bright Blue Music," "Purple," and "Black and White – Charcoal" were the three Torke works that were most likely heard for the first time by nearly everyone in the audience.
Making orchestral color a central part of your palette is quite interesting for a while, but at least in these three compositions, the under-developed motives and ideas overtook the interesting orchestration. The slow tango/waltz "Purple" was the most successful of the three. Slower, exposed works demand a much more finely-honed sense of direction and form, and this lovely ballet pas de deux highlighted Torke's considerable talents.
Back in the early 21st century, when the NCS had a wonderful series that presented solo artists and chamber groups at the Fletcher Opera Theater, I heard an awe-inspiring recital by bassist Edgar Meyer. I had heard about this unique artist who sometimes comes along and completely transcends and changes forever what his instrument can do. Now we had a chance to hear him again, this time doing double duty as soloist and composer of his First Concerto for Double Bass. Meyer is a phenomenal talent, capable of playing in nearly every style, but his improvisatory prowess may have proven to be a detriment to his compositional skills in this work. The first movement is nothing more than some fairly routine blues licks punctuated by occasional responses from the strings. The second movement is a pleasant lyrical respite that gets interrupted by a sudden and bizarre outburst from the full orchestra only to return as from a very bad wrong turn. The final movement is the most successful, incorporating some Celtic reels as in his "Appalachia Waltz" CD and fully utilizing his jaw-dropping technical prowess.
When one sees the title "Concerto for Orchestra," most people would immediately associate it with Bartók. Well, move over Béla, you're going to have some competition from now on, because Jennifer Higdon has usurped your title and may surpass even you. Higdon wrote this large-scale work in 2001 as a commission celebrating the centenary of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The composer's own description aptly describes the musicianship needed to perform this remarkable work: "The Concerto for Orchestra is truly a concerto, in that it requires virtuosity from the principal players, the individual sections, and the entire orchestra." This is for professionals only – please do not attempt this at home. There is just too much here to describe in what is destined to become a staple of the concert repertoire if you can find enough orchestras who can play it. However, this is not virtuosity just for the sake of undisciplined fast playing but a well-crafted, imaginative, and relentlessly-engaging creation that makes you marvel at the creative powers of this woman. It is hard – and unfair – to point out just one "highlight," but the audience seemed to be most captivated by the fourth movement, which mostly features the percussion section. Llewellyn, as usual, led the orchestra with a crisp, no-nonsense, framework that all players could rely on for meter, tempo, and phrasing. Higdon was present and received a thunderous ovation from the energized crowd.
So, it takes some chutzpah to program a triple modern program – but it takes real insight and intelligence to select excellent music and most of all have your audience leave the concert hall hungry for more of the same. The NCS gets an A+ all around.
Note: This program will be repeated on 2/21 in Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh. See our calendar for details.