On Thursday, the National Orchestral Institute‘s New Lights chamber concert started before the music itself did. Just as the student-musicians on stage had finished tuning, other young folk (later revealed to be fellow NOIers) streamed into the Gildenhorn Recital Hall, sorting themselves into pairs that each clapped in a different rhythm and encouraged the audience to join in. The program revealed that these rhythms came from Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto, the first movement of which we were about to hear, but even with foreknowledge the clapping struck a spark: Yes, this is really happening at a classical music concert.
The New Lights concerts have always sought to surprise, with modern repertoire played with committment and skill and presented in ways that are unusual but perhaps shouldn’t be. On Thursday, we heard music without pause for three-quarters of an hour, textures and idioms varied widely around a focal point, Paul Moravec‘s Brandenburg Gate, a chamber concerto commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as a response to the very same Brandenburg No. 2 of Johann Sebastian.
From a vigorous performance of the Baroque selection, the concert slid — literally, via glissando — into a movement from a John Cage string quartet, played by students in the upstairs box seats, with the lights dimmed. Cage’s strategically noncommittal scrapes, extra-tentative here, yielded to the similarly spare but more expressive “Spiegel im Spiegel” (“Mirror in Mirror”) of Arvo Pärt, where those musicians still on the stage traded off with those in the boxes. A piano in a box close to the stage played relentless triadic arpeggios in the Pärtian bell-like style and served as a kind of fulcrum between the two groups.
Everyone got to join in on a chanting improvisation, which started with a NOIers singing whatever notes they wanted. The program encouraged us to chime in with whatever tones sounded good to us and hold them until you felt like dropping them. I sang at a low voice so I could hear the outlines of the massive chord shift and pulse, which was totally fascinating. I would do this again in virtually any group I could get to to do it. (Staff meeting ahoy!)
The cloud of sound started breaking when the NOIers began playing motives from the Moravec, eventually launching into its onrushing, clarifying energy and relentless minor seconds (in the form of “B-A-C-H”). The ripenio group of flute Mark Huskey, clarinet Jen Augello, trumpet Anthony DiMauro, and violin Kenneth Liao commanded attention at the center, playing with assurance and brio. The orchestra played a dense score with remarkably unanimity of expression, earning post-concert plaudits from the composer himself.
The Cage and Pärt performances didn’t quite get to that level, and while the program traced a clear path from piece to piece, it remains unclear to me exactly what the non-Bach works actually had to do with the Moravec. (Also still baffling is the program’s description of the substitution of a vibraphone for the trumpet in the Bach as “clever,” when clearly a trumpet was available and when the orchestra frequently had to drop its volume so the vibraphone could be, you know, heard. In general, another read-through on the program would have been a good idea.) But the format of the program kept the sense of adventure alive throughout — never a slack moment in which quotidian thoughts could intrude — and the modest length left me hungry for more.
The University of Maryland brings all these young people to the NOI because it’s just fun to have talented youths hanging out with each other, but also to help them shape their careers, meaning that they may just represent the Future of Music. If it means more concerts where musicians actively engage the audience, think of novel ways to present music, and tread boldly into modern repertoire with instant appeal, bring on the future.
Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette. (No, the concert did not take place at Strathmore. Blasted headline writers. I still cringe when remembering this doozy.) Updated to add: Charles T. Downey.