American Composers Orchestra Performs 21st Firsts

Nothing quite compares to the American Composers Orchestra. It is the only orchestra that exists with the sole purpose of serving living American composers. Since its inception in 1977, ACO has performed the music of over 600 composers, including over 200 world premieres. In addition to performances and premieres, ACO’s programs provide valuable experience and visibility for the work of emerging composers.

SONiC: Sounds of a New Century, is one of these programs. SONiC’s inaugural season in 2011-2012 featured the music of 100 composers under the age of 40, including 24 world premieres, performed over nine days. This year’s festival was no less ambitious, bringing together some 80 composers between October 15 and 23 for 12 performances, including 20 premieres, all over New York City. This year’s iteration of SONiC came to an end at an Orchestra Underground concert entitled “21st Firsts” on October 23, 2015. Orchestra Underground is a series run by ACO that lives at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, which sits two stories below street level. The series is designed to stretch the possibilities of the orchestra and to challenge conventional notions about orchestral music. This innovative approach often leads to the performance of multidisciplinary works, works incorporating multimedia, and collaborative projects.

ACO opened the October 23 concert with the premiere of Michael-Thomas Foumai’s The Spider Thread, a quick and calculated piece filled with measured cacophony that never seemed to stay somewhere for too long. The piece is based on a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa that tells the tale of a sinner attempting to escape hell by climbing up a spider’s thread. As the sinner climbs, other sinners begin climbing the thread behind him, ultimately causing the thread to break and all the sinners to remain in hell.

Orchestra Underground 21st Firsts-- Photo by Pete Checchia

Melody Eötvös and Orchestra Underground 21st Firsts– Photo by Pete Checchia

The premiere that followed, Melody Eötvös’s Red Dirt | Silver Rain, mirrored Foumai’s in aesthetic style, never seeming to sit still on an idea for too long. Eötvös’s work sought to evoke memories from her childhood of growing up in Australia, including her memories of shoes caked in red dirt and the torrential downpours in the summer months. The narrative was clear through Eötvös’s music, and one could almost close one’s eyes and imagine the smell of rain as the storm raged on stage.

The standout piece of the evening was the premiere of Hannah Lash’s Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra. Lash, who is a composer and a harpist, joined the orchestra on stage to perform as the soloist. The piece is quirky and bouncy, the orchestra often moving towards a groove before knocking itself out of it. The harp writing was particularly stunning, with beautiful melodies and moving cadenzas permeating the piece. The final cadenza was particularly powerful, revealing, as the composer describes in the program notes, “a music that is special, beautiful, otherworldly, and fragile, like the harp itself.” After the final note resonated through the hall, Lash’s piece received three curtain calls (and it was only intermission!).

Wearing her hat as a vocalist, Caroline Shaw joined the ACO on stage next for Judah Adashi’s Sestina for voice and orchestra. The text for the piece is taken from Ciara Shuttleworth’s poem of the same name. Throughout the piece, Shaw cycles through the poem, singing through it once a cappella and then singing it again with orchestral accompaniment. Each cycle through the poem includes a variant on the original motifs and a playful shift in Adashi’s lush accompaniment.

Composer Caroline Shaw

Caroline Shaw

In terms of innovation and challenging traditional orchestral conventions, Conrad Winslow’s Joint Account for orchestra and video was the only piece that really approached that goal. Divided into four movements, Joint Account was based on Baroque theorist Johann Mattheson’s 1739 manual of techniques on representing emotions in music. Rather than adapting the orchestra to the projected video, Winslow instead treated the video as an orchestral color. The video thus marks the musical structure and helps clarify or muddy the emotional objectives of the music. Each of the four movements explored the relationship between music, film, and affect, and the incorporation of film into music was well done.

At the end of the night, it was hard to believe that another SONiC festival had come and passed. The ACO-run festival is a truly unique experience that is necessary to aid the advancement of the careers of emerging American composers around the country. Despite existing in a city already saturated with so much new music, SONiC is able to make its voice heard through the noise.