Posted tagged ‘james ross’

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!

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Harmonies from the Close of Two Centuries Ago: The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, March 17, 2011

March 19, 2011

James Ross presents thought-provoking programs as music director of the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, finding relationships and championing repertoire that should interest even people who don’t live and work near the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Being so geographically lucky, I checked out Thursday night’s concert (which the students likely think of as “the midterm”).

Ross and the UMSO presented two big works by Johannes Brahms (his Symphony no. 3) and John Adams (Harmonielehre), respectively, in the Dekelboum Concert Hall, letting the listener compare and contrast, which stimulated the intellect. The UMSO’s playing, much of the time, stimulated the pleasure centers directly.

James Ross

"WE MUST PROTECT THIS PERFORMING ARTS CENTER!" James Ross takes a cue from other legendary Maryland team leaders.

Brahms’ Third, like his other works, cleaves to a harmonically conservative language, even in the face of “advances” (yeah, I scare-quoted that) from Wagner. Adams, meanwhile, named Harmonielehre after Arnold Schoenberg’s textbook on harmony while rejecting Schoenberg’s twelve-tone methods; Adams’ harmonies sound more, well, Wagnerian than anything else. Both works had some major-minor tension, constant in the Adams and, in the Brahms, found in the first movement, which spends a good amount of time flickering in and out of its nominal F major. A completely nonsubstantive link between the two is that they are separated by almost exactly a century; Brahms completed his Third in 1883, while Adams began work on Harmonielehre in 1984.

Brahms came first on Thursday’s program as well. From Ross’ treatment of the second theme, which had a just-perceptible touch of swing on it, he made it clear that he wanted his Brahms light on its feet and transparent. He also maxed out the drama where appropriate, trusting that the autumnal quality of the score would be indomitable even in a livelier interpretation than usual. And indeed, the second and third movements glimmered in echt-Brahmsian pastoral fashion, but all of Brahms’ counterpoint came through as well, giving a richly layered, nuanced effect. The finale, on the other hand, rocked pretty hard, with a big solid noise from the orchestra at climaxes and dynamic rhythms thrusting the score forward.

Brahms’ Third also showed that the UMSO is sounding good lately. The woodwinds provide a lot of the rich coloring of Brahms’ second and third movements, and they sounded awesome throughout Thursday night, giving their solos a personal quality, as if they felt Brahms had written for them. The strings were not far behind, with good ensemble playing for a student orchestra and lovely tone for anyone, shaping their melodies with keen feeling. The cellos and basses, especially, sounded rock-solid and expressive underneath the middle- and upper-range complexity. The horns did not quite reach the level of their colleagues, as messy entrances and imprecise notes kept cropping up, although the trumpeter took a well-deserved bow after Harmonielehre. Numerous members of the orchestra were dressed in green in recognition of the day, and the entrance of certain players onto the stage was met with raucous cheers from the gallery, but these accoutrements did not distract or detract from an involving performance.

I didn’t pay quite as much attention to the individual musicians and their playing during Harmonielehre, as the hall was dimmed so the projections of Tim McLoraine could be seen above the orchestra, against the chorister seats and the back wall of the Dekelboum.

I spent a while after the concert thinking about why Ross had decided to ask McLoraine to create projections for this concert (he’s worked with Ross and the UMSO before). Here’s my theory: Brahms works solidly within the symphonic tradition, with all the sonata and ternary forms that implies, while Adams shaped the three movements of Harmonielehre based on dreams and myths, with melodies, rhythms, and moods shifting according to their own logic. So McLoraine’s interpreation of/play with Harmonielehre would show one way to interpret its ambiguous narrative and give the audience, lacking its usual structural anchors, a way to stick with the music better.

Geometric shapes (notably small circles and line-drawn cubes) shared the space with clip art, occasional semi-legible cursive, and blurry, distorted landscapes; their movements and morphing resonated deeply with the music, as McLoraine kept his visuals in sync with the music from his seat in the balcony. At first, I watched the projections breathlessly awaiting the next transformation of a bunch of little circles and a shimmering water texture, but eventually the sheer power of the UMSO’s performance drew my eyes back to the stage, to see how they were doing it. Still, when the rainbow-colored headdress-looking thing (these were mostly not representational images) began unfolding itself from the inside out, then blew up into giant size and appeared to fly up out of the hall, I was definitely paying attention.

The collaboration pumped up the UMSO, which gave a performance worthy of the scale (45 minutes!) and expressive power of the work. Ross had a great feel for pacing and incidents, and the UMSO followed him everywhere he went, keeping the busy textures clear and sticking with the tricky rhythms. Apart from continued brass faults, the playing remained at a high level, and with even more players on stage than in the Brahms, the sound could grow truly gigantic — the second time in a week I’ve been pinned back in my seat at an orchestral concert. Not a bad feeling at all, in my book, and a great way to finish off a UMSO concert that was even more stimulating than usual.