Posted tagged ‘university of maryland symphony orchestra’

Spring Into Dance: University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, May 4, 2014

May 6, 2014

The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performed a fully choreographed version of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” on Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. They didn’t accompany the dancing; they were the dancers, throwing themselves into choreography by famed dance-maker Liz Lerman. This follows up on a UMSO/Lerman triumph of two years previous, a similar effort to the strains of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude a l’après-midi d’une faune,” which you can kind of get the idea of from this video. I watched the video from the previous concert but didn’t attend, and so I didn’t realize how much the movement would transform the music as well as the visual experience of a concert. The word’s overused, but this truly was an unforgettable experience.

And it was an experience framed in memory: Martha Wittman came onto the dark stage and sat down: an older woman paging slowly through a book with a smile on her face. Wittman, who not only danced but also collaborated on the choreography, seemed to be awakening the opening measures with her reminiscences; she eventually found a younger foil in U-Md. conducting student Enrico Lopez-Yanez, whose energy inspired Wittman to match as the music sped merrily along. The framing actions (no program was supplied) served to make the stage into a festive reminiscence, with the musicians garbed in rustic attire appropriate to an Appalachian get-together.

Some of the musicians danced with more ease than others, which is to be expected, but they all threw themselves into their moves and played more than creditably while doing so. Indeed, every so often Lerman, along with choreographic collaborator Vincent Thomas, pressed the students to the edge of reasonable possibility, and the UMSO accepted all the challenges: A double-bassist scrambling across the stage carrying his instrument above his head, a bassoonist standing on a fellow musician’s back and delivering a fine solo, a flautist throwing himself into vigorous dancing one minute and playing with perfect breath in the next. That’s commitment, folks.

This is from rehearsal, but it totally happened live. Photo by Kirsten Poulsen-House.

This is from rehearsal, but it totally happened live. Photo by Kirsten Poulsen-House.

Still, the revelation for me came not in the dancing itself, but what it did to the music when the musicians formed and dissolved their various constellations on the Dekelboum Concert Hall’s stage. Instrumental combos that would never sit next to each other (trumpets and violins side-by-side? Sure!) made familiar sounds newly piquant. Textures thinned out, opened up, and at times felt kaleidoscopic, as when string players walked in circles, and you could hear individual notes from the unison playing fade in and out ever so slightly. Woodwinds scattered across the stage to call to each other, underlining Copland’s playful writing and giving it a visual dimension. Especially vigorous rhythms actually got stomped out by the musicians who were playing them, as they advanced from the rear risers. Music that’s always evoked a country celebration in my mind seemed to actually belong to one. And I got goosebumps when a bunch of the musicians strode purposefully to the very front of the stage to blast the climactic statement of “Simple Gifts,” both from the earnest straightforwardness and the sheer volume of sound.

James Ross, the artistic director of the UMSO, masterminded all this effort but was nowhere to be found on stage until the applause started. Being conductorless, too, seemed to liberate and excite the musicians; they had so many responsibilities that they had to be really present, all the time. After that final “Simple Gifts” statement, the music recedes into that twilight memory space again, and Wittman’s character returned to her book; the final touching moment for me was watching a percussion player and harpist nodding to each other as they played the sweet final notes under sustained strings.

It was inevitably a bit of a letdown to hear two pieces after intermission in the standard orchestral configuration, with Ross at the front and everyone sitting down, not that I expect any orchestra to be able to put together a fully choreographed program. (Yes, that’s a dare!)

Robert Russell Bennett’s “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture” clothed George Gershwin’s immortal tunes in sometimes overfine symphonic garb, overemphasizing the blue notes that were natural to Gershwin. The students romped through it anyway, but I filed the arrangement in the category of “fun but I never need to hear it again.” On the other hand, Henri Dutilleux’s Metaboles, five small-scale works for large-scale orchestra, gleamed with clarity and quivered with tension, orchestral colors bursting from every measure – a showpiece well-shown. And yet, in years to come, it’s the dance I’ll remember.

Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette. More photos available here, in case you’re wondering what it looked like. 

Update: Video now available!

We Found Order in an Empty Place: Daniel Bernard Roumain with the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra and the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, March 29, 2011

March 30, 2012

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.

In the beginning, there was DBR. By Leslie Lyons, from his website.

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.


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