Marcos Balter premiere at ACO’s Border Vanguards in Zankel Hall

Carnegie Hall LogoFriday, April 4, 2014, was another rainy day. While many of the folks scurrying down Seventh Avenue were undoubtedly trying to catch a primetime screening of Captain America, a faithful few were headed to Carnegie Hall for the final installment in the American Composers Orchestra’s 10th Anniversary Orchestra Underground season. The program, entitled “Border Vanguards,” was a celebration of works alternately inspired by and written by Latin-American themes and composers. Boasting one world premiere by Brazilian-born composer Marcos Balter (commissioned by the orchestra), two New York premieres by Gabriela Lena Frank and the ACO’s own Artistic Director, Derek Bermel respectively, and two standards of the modern repertoire, Silvestre Revueltas’ Alcancías and Gunther Schuller’s Contours, the evening unfolded into a kaleidoscope of aesthetics and styles that made for a compelling survey of just what “inspired by Latin-America” can mean.

Composer Maroc Balter (photo: Kat Keers)

Composer Maroc Balter (photo: Kat Keers)

Revueltas was a Mexican composer and conductor extremely active in the first half of the 20th century. A champion of Mexican contemporary music, he and his colleague Carlos Chávez organized the first concerts of contemporary music in Mexico in the 1920s. His multi-movement work Alcancías made for a compelling opener, introducing the audience to a sonic world of mariachi bands, Mexican folk music and street sounds translated into the language of European orchestral instruments.

Balter’s Favela was similar in its ambition to capture the essence of a place, in this case, the shantytowns of the composer’s native Brazil for which the work is named. Somewhat more intellectual in scope and construction than Alcancías, Balter’s work effectively built a kind of musical shantytown by presenting a colorful palette of gestures and sounds in the composer’s own, unique language, rather than through glimmers of familiar styles and melodies. This material came together in a sort of undulating community of motifs. Beginning with a stark and pointilistic landscape, as the density of the work increased, a general feeling that the listener was literally strolling into Balter’s imaginary shantytown, happily losing himself amongst evolving clusters of contrasting structures with no interest in finding the way out, confident that the path would emerge organically, as it did. For a composer as prolific as Balter, it was amazing to discover that this work is his first for orchestra, and it is an exciting prospect to be hearing many more in the future.

Gabriela Lena Frank at Macchu Picchu

Gabriela Lena Frank at Macchu Picchu

American-born composer Gabriela Lena Frank offered up a different kind of cultural exploration with her work Manchay Tiempo. The title is an invented phrase meant to describe mixed feelings of dread and tenderness impressed upon the composer in childhood by recurring dreams and nightmares (translating roughly to “time of fear”).  Frank, who is of mixed Lithuanian-Jewish and Peruvian-Chinese descent, drew upon her memories of learning about turmoil in her mother’s home country of Peru and the resulting dreams she experienced to weave a contrasting tapestry both scary and serene. The work was effective in communicating Frank’s concept of capturing those incomprehensible feelings with which dreams often bewilder us, pitting commonly used devices such as tight-knit harmonies and abrasive sounds (representing fear) against flowing melodic lines and consonant harmonies (representing tenderness).

Following the intermission, Music Director George Manahan dove head-first with his orchestra into Gunther Schuller’s revolutionary twelve-movement Contours.  Composed between 1955 and 1958, Contours was Schuller’s first to combine contrasting artistic outlets in American culture — jazz and classical, worlds in which Schuller is equally well-respected and for which the composer coined the term “Third Stream.”  Throughout Schuller’s dizzying freely atonal language, elements complimentary to the works of Revueltas and Balter convincingly tied Contours to the rest of the program.

Emerging from this landscape of kinetic, exploratory works, the oddball of the group was undoubtedly Derek Bermel’s song cycle, Mar de Setembro, on texts by Portuguese poet Eugénio de Andrade featuring guest vocalist Luciana Souza. Bermel’s work spanned five short movements, remaining consistent with a standard, almost cinematic use of approachable tonality and traditional form. The inclusion of a waterphone in the orchestration only served to bolster the film-music vibe. A waterphone is a metal instrument typically used as a special effect in film and television scores due to its eerie, whale-like timbre and grouped (in my mind) with other novelties such as the musical saw, didgeridoo or rain stick.

Derek Bermel - Photo by James Pomerantz

Derek Bermel – Photo by James Pomerantz

It is hard to say whether or not Bermel’s work was successful in its intentions as the composer’s program notes described only the task of setting the chosen texts being “daunting and humbling.” Of the entire set, the fourth song, ’Ocultas águas’ (Hidden Waters) was the most expressive. However, while this movement provided some of the most compelling textures in the work, the poem’s evocative title seemed betrayed by the almost clichéd musical material, which played out a bit too closely to what one might have expected to hear. Over all, the work made for a pleasurable listening experience, but felt more like a well-crafted studio arrangement than an original composition.

In all, Orchestra Underground: Border Vanguards showcased exactly what the American Composers Orchestra stands for: a celebration of the diversity in what modern orchestral music can represent, and the varying forms it may take. Thanks to Derek Bermel’s thoughtful and progressive curation as Artistic Director, exciting new works continue to grace the stages of Carnegie Hall and ensure the success of newer and newer generations of young composers.  Heading back out into the foggy, April drizzle, looking ahead to what the next ten years may bring through this good institution served to warm up the journey home.