Half a Good Concert is Better Than None: The National Festival Orchestra at the University of Maryland, June 13, 2015

The National Orchestral Institute‘s National Festival Orchestra, housed every summer at the University of Maryland, often presents concerts that exceed reasonable expectations for an orchestra composed of outstanding students: technically accomplished, yet also full of a wonder and joy that elude many professional ensembles. (For more background, you can check out this story, which if nothing else proves that linking to myself is fun for me.)

The record label Naxos got wind of this, and their sound engineers festooned the Dekelbaum Concert Hall with microphones for the NFO’s concert on Saturday night, the first recording in what will be an annual series of recording dates, with each successive iteration of the NFO playing an all-American program for digital immortality.

The NFO’s performance of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 surely merited repeated hearings. This is a big-canvas work for a huge orchestra that tackles a great enormity, the plague of AIDS during the 1980s, through the most personal means possible: memorials for friends the composer lost to the disease. Ironically, hearing this work live made it make much more sense to me than the recording by which I had previously known it: An offstage piano, playing a tango that was a favorite of one of Corigliano’s friends, now sounded and appeared decisively separated from the main orchestra’s attempts to make sense of the death, and the waves of brass in the epilogue, spread across the stage, felt like real ocean currents with the proper sense of sonic separation.

The musicians made both these special orchestral effects and the more conventional passages sound incredibly vivid. Guest conductor David Alan Miller, music director of the Albany Symphony and a noted champion of American composers, gave his young charges clear direction and urged them to expression while fitting individual moments into the overarching structure of the symphony.

David Alan Miller. Photo from the Albany Symphony website.

David Alan Miller. Photo from the Albany Symphony website.

Much of this music is supposed to sound brutal — the first movement is subtitled “Of Rage and Rememberance,” and the second depicts an acceleration into madness. But in this performance, each brutal moment had its own unique sonic character that drove the narrative forward, with the whopping six percussionists variegating their playing nicely in particular. The strings played everywhere in the emotional and musical spectrum with aplomb, seething on an A to open the work and serving as a balm elsewhere, with notably eloquent solo cello work from the principal in the third movement, when Corigliano eulogizes a player of that instrument. The winds matched their counterparts in eloquence and virtuosity. Most professional orchestras would be quite proud of an effort like this.

The pre-intermission performances came up short of that standard. In Michael Torke’s “Bright Blue Music” (another work I have been waiting for a long time to hear in a concert hall), the orchestra’s various sections every so slightly out of sync with each other, making a work that should both shine brightly (hence the name!) and bustle with activity instead sound blurry and fall flat.

The same large orchestra that played “Bright Blue Music” more or less stayed on to play the suite from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” which for pedagogical purposes is entirely understandable — no one came to the NOI not to play in the orchestra. However, textures that sound crystalline in chamber-orchestra renditions sounded big and boxy on Saturday night, creating some emotional distance from the melodies. It was interesting to hear the Copland after the Torke, however, as the Torke seemed to be made up almost entirely of the little interstitial bits Copland uses to get from melody to melody. In the right hands, Torke’s super-tonal harmonies and refusal to engage melodically makes for a oddly uplifting and meditative experience. I’m going to have to wait for a while to hear that performance live, I suspect.

Still, this was the NFO’s first full concert with a guest conductor, and the playing in the Corigliano symphony was well worth the $25 that the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center asked folks to pony up to hear it. The last two programs this year (here and here) seem like potential winners as well. Go see ’em.

Other People’s Perspectives: Charles T. Downey.

BEING RECORDED

To accommodate Naxos’ efforts, the audience was asked to avoid making any unnecessary noise, like applause between movements and loud coughing, and you could have heard a pin drop in the hall throughout. I confess I spent a few seconds during the concert angrily remonstrating my nose for even thinking about letting loose a sneeze. I made it without spoiling anything.

The opening bars of the Corigliano, which aren’t even that hardcore in terms of dissonance compared to what would arrive just a few moments later, chased a couple elderly audience members seated to my left out of the hall. They walked very softly, though, and I am sure the record-buying public will be none the wiser. I don’t really understand buying a ticket to a concert and then not actually listening to the all the music to which your ticket entitles you, but then again I actually like this stuff.

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