Gatsby from Albany

IMG_0080Last night I was at the first of two important Harbisonian Gatsby performances happening within a few days of each other (the other being this). The Albany Symphony’s appearance at the Carnegie Hall “Spring for Music” festival offered a program of Morton Gould’s Third Symphony, the Gershwin Second Rhapsody (with pianist Kevin Cole), and The Great Gatsby Suite. Harbison writes that he avoided including in the Suite music from the opera’s overture or its six principal arias, preferring to rely instead on the instrumental interludes and the stage and radio band sequences. The result is not just a succession of tunes, but a newly shaped musical narrative, freed from the narrative depicted on stage in the opera while retaining its DNA. The piece remains a suite, but this sense of a new narrative, plus the fact that it plays continuously save for a single break, means it has something of a symphonic flavor.

David Alan Miller, Albany’s music director, believes strongly in the Morton Gould Third, and to a great extent he is right to do so, for there are remarkable pages here of harmonic beauty and rhythmic verve. It’s a big-boned four-movement piece, of its time in its neo-classicism, dissonanted tonal vocabulary, and jazzy gestures. The seven beat funeral march in the first movement and the polychords in the strings in the last movement were only a few of the striking moments. I found a fair bit of Shostakovich in the piece, though with many more meter changes and other rhythmic asymmetries. The ending struck me as a miscalculation, the few pages that return to the quick tempo unconvincing after the soulful dissonances that provide what would have been a sufficient cap to the piece.

Throughout the evening, the orchestra sounded terrific with a fine command of the jazz aspects of all three pieces. It remains a mystery as to how Albany can do such important and polished work on a budget that is not just a shoestring budget, but a broken shoestring budget – the short portion of the string.

My photo above shows Maestro Miller on the left with composer Harbison after the concert.

Gatsby Videos

Go here for a substantial set of videos featuring Emmanuel Music’s Ryan Turner, along with John Harbison and Richard Dyer discussing John’s The Great Gatsby, to be performed by Emmanuel in Boston’s Jordan Hall this coming Sunday, May 12. Of particular interest in the videos are segments where John and Ryan perform excerpts from the piece, illustrating how the same motives and harmonies can be heard in both the synthetic period pop songs and in the main body of the work.

The Albany Symphony’s performance of a suite from The Great Gatsby as part of Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music festival is tomorrow night, May 7 – tickets here.

Gatsby Returns

Judging from what you can hear on the trailer, you won’t be going to the upcoming film of The Great Gatsby for the music. Seekers of a musical Gatsby should be getting their tickets for the Boston premiere of John Harbison’s opera on the subject, being given by Emmanuel Music in a concert version featuring the the full orchestration.*  This will take place at Jordan Hall on Sunday, May 12.

A few days before the Boston performance you can preview some of the music from the opera in a May 7 Carnegie Hall concert by the Albany Symphony, with David Alan Miller conducting. The program will include a suite from Harbison’s work, alongside music by Gershwin and Morton Gould. This is part of Carnegie’s Spring for Music festival of orchestral concerts.

It is nearly inexplicable to me that Harbison’s opera was not more universally praised on its first appearance. I say “nearly” because the tempi of conductor James Levine did make the piece lose momentum at moments, leading critics to interpret a performance flaw as a compositional one. There was certainly plenty of praise for the piece, as the quotes on G. Schirmer’s web page confirm. But apart from Bernard Holland’s despicably condescending take, most of the reviews mix admiration with niggling at details, or vague reservations. Alex Ross didn’t care of the setting of Gatsby’s first entrance, with a long note on the first word of “I’m Gatsby.” What did he want, a long note on the first syllable of “Gatsby”? You’d have something akin to the current fad of goat vocalism on YouTube. Mark Swed remarks that “Harbison may have solved too many problems.” He would prefer that the piece have unsolved problems? It’s hard to know what that means, given that Swed goes on to describe how the composer succeeds in creating a dramatic narrative. I was amused to read how Holland and Swed had precisely opposite opinions on the staging and design of the production.

Listening to the piece again on the recording issued by the Met as part of a James Levine 40th anniversary CD collection, one thing that struck me, besides Levine’s tendency to drag the pacing at moments, was how poorly the chorus sounds, singing the synthetic 20’s pop songs with an unpleasantly and totally inappropriate heavy vibrato. (I’m sure Emmanuel won’t have that problem.) Still, the performances by the all-star cast (Upshaw, Hadley, Hunt-Lieberson, Graham) make up for these deficiencies. It’s good to have the recording because repeated listenings confirm that the piece is musically substantive in a way that few post-war operas are. There is a real composer at work here, folks – maybe the problem with the reception of the piece is that listeners to contemporary opera aren’t accustomed to that.

* In an earlier version of this post, I had assumed that the chamber orchestra version (prepared for a production in San Francisco) was being done. Apologies to Emmanuel Music for the error!

Instant Encore playlist

Now playing at Instant Encore:

- Ryan MacEvoy McCollough plays Andrew McPherson’s Secrets of Antikithera and John Harbison’s Second Piano Sonata.

- two works of mine are available: the Albany Symphony playing Luminism (various posts about the piece begin here), and organist Karel Paukert playing my Meditation on “What Wondrous Love is This?”

- Da Capo Chamber Players offer music by Cleveland composers Keith Fitch, Andrew Rindfleisch, and Greg D’Alessio.

- Darknesse Visible, a piano work by Thomas Adés, played by Hoang Pham.

- the Ying Quartet offers Chou Wen-Chung’s First String Quartet, “Clouds”.

Streaming Luminism

You can now listen to the Albany Symphony performance of my Luminism at Instant Encore. David Alan Miller conducts a very fine performance. I don’t know how long the piece will be available, but since the Albany will probably not be adding new material over the summer, it should be there for a while. Read a program note about the piece here, and read posts about my time in Albany here, here, here, and here. I notice that the Albany has won an ASCAP adventurous programming award.

Luminism in Albany

L to R: conductor and music director of the Albany Symphony David Alan Miller, composers John Harbison, James Primosch, and Stacy Garrop

I’ve already blogged about my recent experience in Albany herehere and here, but am only now getting around to a word about how the May 22nd concert went. David Alan Miller, Albany Symphony music director, began the program with two new movements from Stacy Garrop’s planned Mythology Symphony. Her Becoming Medusa was performed by the Albany last fall (you can hear the performance here), and at David’s suggestion, she is adding additional movements to the piece. The new ones deal with The Sirens and The Fates. She has a handle on a big orchestral sound, with grand, vivid, even overpowering gestures (perhaps there is a Christopher Rouse influence here?). Both new pieces drive to huge climaxes; in the Fates movement, the peaks contrast with some eloquent (and beautifully played) solo cello writing. Stacy says she is planning a Pandora movement to round out the piece. It is a smart strategy to write independent pieces that can combine to make up a grander vision – think of George Tsontakis’s T.S. Eliot piecesRouse’s Phantasmata; Carter’s big Symphonia; and Augusta Read Thomas’s Helios Choros ballet tryptich (go here and scroll down), worthy pieces all. Or at least it seems like a smart strategy. The problem is to get the entire set performed as a unit. This partly has to do with the problem of the second performance that I wrote about here; but it also has to do with the unavailability of a 40 minute slot for a new piece on an orchestral concert.

The best thing about the next piece on the program, a percussion concerto by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, was the commanding performance by soloist Colin Currie, who is perhaps best known for his performances and recording of Jennifer Higdon’s Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto. I found the Rautavarra rather square and unimaginative. It is saying something when the most interesting composing in a concerto is the cadenza which has been written not by the composer, but by the soloist! Currie is a remarkable virtuoso, and made as much as he could of the often stiffly constructed solo part. I hope to hear him in a more inspired work soon.

My own Luminism followed the intermission. (You can read my program note here.) Rather than try to describe it more, I’ll let you hear it for yourself when it becomes available on Instant Encore. For now, I’ll just report that David and the Albany did a fantastic job – David paced the piece beautifully, there was wonderful solo playing (thank you, horns, for the beautifully echoing nocturnal passage), and the full ensemble had power and precision.

The concert closed with a suite from John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby. Berg extracted a Lulu Suite from his opera, but he also planned a Lulu Symphony, and Harbison’s suite tends toward the symphonic in character. Although sometimes the transitions are abrupt, the piece is more than a simple stringing together of excerpts. There is something symphonic about the tension created when the 20s style pop tunes Harbison created are juxtaposed with the music for the story’s more dramatic moments. Both kinds of music share some of the same motivic material and it is as though that material is being developed in two different keys. With the music alone, Harbison is able to convey something of the expressive impact of the opera on this smaller canvas. Take the words and scenery out of many contemporary operas, and you will have mere background music. That’s not the case with Gatsby. There is an affecting drama deep in the music’s bones.

Apart from this symphonic drama, there is plenty of charm in the piece. The witty, expertly crafted 20s songs – foxtrots, a tango, and so forth – are played by a sort of cafe orchestra embedded in the larger ensemble. There are sometimes tiny hints of Ives when the pop songs collide with something else – for example, a very high, soft violin obligato played over one of the pop tunes feels like something from another world –  and I would have enjoyed more of that. Let’s hope this impressive suite inspires more productions of the opera itself.

It was a fantastic experience in Albany. David, let’s do it again soon!

Dogs of Desire (Report from Albany #2)

Final rehearsal for Luminism went well today, with yesterday’s adjustments falling into place very nicely. This was the first time I heard the piece all the way through, and therefore my first chance to really assess the formal shape. I think it is going to work, though there is a lot of slow music.

After a fine dinner at Muza, a Polish restaurant in Troy (a sampler with pierogis, stuffed cabbage and potato pancakes was excellent; the Polish beer, called Zywiec, well, nothing special), my colleagues John Harbison, Stacy Garrop, and I went to hear the Albany Symphony’s new music ensemble, called Dogs of Desire. The Dogs are a unique endeavor, in that they have a relatively set chamber orchestra instrumentation, and that they play only newly commissioned works written for the group. The aesthetic angle is downtown-ish, with pop elements, including arrangements of familiar tunes, yet the group is not easily pinned down. I see George Tsontakis and Paul Moravec on their list of commissioned composers, alongside Marc Mellitts, David Lang, and Caleb Burhans. My favorite pieces tonight were a new work by Todd Reynolds involving Eric Singer’s musical robots (midi-ed acoustic instruments – some of the same instruments that Pat Matheny has been touring with); Ted Hearne’s setting of a Frank O’Hara poem; and, as an encore, an arrangement of the Bruce Springsteen song Fire (you know it from the Pointer Sisters version) by Derek Bermel. David Alan Miller conducted very fine performances, though amplified chamber orchestra remains tricky with respect to balances: the strings were occasionally reduced to mimes.