It would be hard to describe everything that happens in Daniel Bernard Roumain‘s “The Order of an Empty Place,” a new work for amplified violin, wind orchestra, and rabbi (really) that Roumain (universally known as DBR) premiered with the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra on Thursday night. So perhaps we can start at the beginning.
The first two people to come onto the stage were DBR himself and a gentleman who sat at an electronic keyboard; DBR took up his violin and played a four-note motive, serene yet flowing, with the keyboard making synth washes of sound in support. The lights dimmed and a video played on a screen suspended above the Dekelboum Concert Hall’s stage. Over the speakers we heard DBR reading his program note for “The Order of an Empty Place.” The video picked out significant phrases to emphasize, while the four-note motive wandered around a bit but maintained its shape. Meanwhile, in the darkened hall, the members of the wind orchestra filed in from the back to the stage, taking their places. When the video ended, the lights came up, and Rabbi Joy Levitt spoke the words “I want to remind everyone that seder means order,” summoning the music to start and opening a recitation about the larger meaning of seder in Jewish lives. And, now seated, the wind orchestra began playing as she talked. It got only slightly less complicated from there.
“The Order of an Empty Place” draws on many wellsprings of inspiration: the story of Passover, the ritual with which it is celebrated, the way its celebrations mark transitions and new beginnings, and the meaning of it for DBR and his son, born to him of a Jewish mother whom DBR has since divorced. Yet its musical materials are relatively simple, mostly melodic and rhythmic patterns established at the beginning of a passage and gradually elaborated, like flowers unfolding. The initial simplicity and fervent repetition in the music quite often captured the feeling of a ritual celebration, both static and endlessly evolving as it recurs.
But some parts of the work didn’t even have music. At one point Levitt would speak and the orchestra would speak back, as antiphon. For the actual story of Passover, Levitt led the audience in a communal reading of the libretto, with interjections from the orchestra. The form was of a religious ritual (I could hear everyone using their church-recitation voices) but the interjections changed up the rhythm slightly and gave it a musical feel as well.
After the concert, DBR said the UMWO players had “a certain audacity, a certain courage, a certain confidence,” which if anything understates the case. DBR didn’t write down to these students; some passages posed brutal difficulties, like a long exposed passage for horns intertwining on and around a melody, and the UMWO mostly handled them quite well. (The full wind orchestra playing together occasionally sounded smudgy and clotted, but I am inclined to blame this on DBR’s orchestration rather than the players.) They walked and yelled with aplomb when called for, too.
Playing against the wind orchestra, DBR’s violin always came through clearly. “The Order of an Empty Place” called on him to deploy his intricate knowledge of the unique colors of his instruments, sometimes playing with a high-pitched sheen echoing the ringing tones of the metallophone percussion instruments at the back of the stage, sometimes hinting at feedback during impassioned moments without ever making his tone ugly. My favorite DBR moment, though, was an extended pizzicato passage, clicks in decorous support of the melody in the orchestra: the amplification making small pops a little larger, DBR carrying his bow in his mouth, knees slightly bent, grooving on the rhythm. “The Order of an Empty Place” is not pop, but some moments have a pop inflection, and it all felt of a piece.
Levitt obviously knows how to speak in public, and although she seemed a little uncomfortable at the beginning of this world premiere performance, she warmed up to her task. When she led us in the Passover story, however, she frequently strayed from the libretto text, which was unfortunate for the people in the audience who were game for adventure and actually trying to read along with her. (Levitt did an unambiguously better job speaking than DBR did in his video voiceover, where the microphone picked up squeaks and inhalations and DBR often seemed to be rushing through his own words without regard for their sense.) Her narration, and playwright Margaret Lynch‘s libretto, produced some moments of great eloquence, as when Levitt repeated the line “We will build a life together” four times, each with a different emphasis, the music behind her paralleled her divergent readings. The final words, “Listen and say: here I am,” with a benediction of soft chords in the orchestra, felt truly powerful, a summing up of all that had come before.
I am often wary of multimedia works because every additional medium increases the chances that something is going to go wrong. In this one, despite some frayed edges, the disparate elements came together to create a complete artwork. DBR, Levitt, and the UMWO will perform “The Order of an Empty Place” tomorrow at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan (Levitt’s home base), and if you happen to be in New York and up for something new on a Saturday night, you should head over there and give it a listen.
So that was after intermission. Go have a break if you want before reading the rest of this review. Ready? Because there’s some more concert-presentation stuff to discuss, and you know how I like discussing it!
Before intermission, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra handled the musical duties, playing a curious program of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and the second and third movements of Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony. The UMSO put together a video featuring the three graduate conductors who led the orchestra discussing their pieces, but no one explained: Why the symphonic excerpts, and why these three pieces of music? Seemed worth addressing. In addition, two of the conductors mostly repeated their program notes in describing the piece, making the video something of a waste of time if you did actually bother to read the notes. (For the record, I quite enjoyed the video’s newsreel-style graphics.)
In his segment, conductor Jason Ethridge correctly noted that a major challenge of the Debussy is to let its languors play out while maintaining some kind of forward pulse, and he and the UMSO rose to this challenge. The UMSO also sounded great here, with luxuriant solo flute playing and gorgeous shimmering strings, making this the most satisfying of the three performances.
One of my biggest concert-hall regrets is napping during the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the second and third movements of the “Resurrection” Symphony during Yuri Temirkanov’s last concert as music director (note: I was not reviewing), but I made sure to drink some Coke Zero and maintain an open mind on Thursday. Michael Jacko spoke in the video of navigating the second movement’s folk-ish rhythms with style, and unfortunately his performance felt a bit leaden, with overcareful rubato and not much of a rhythmic lift. John Devlin had an easier movement to conduct, as the third is full of activity and grotesqueries that sort of characterize themselves, and the UMSO sounded lively and engaged, the strings buzzed with their sixteenth notes, and the orchestra delivered a brutal shriek of a big dissonant chord towards the end. Even with my avowed distaste for Mahler, these little tastes me kind of want to hear the whole symphony again. I promise not to fall asleep next time.