Although they didn't make much of it in their program notes, last night's concert by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall was a rare event. Apart from the American Composers Orchestra, few of our major "classical" performing organizations present programs entirely consisting of compositions by American composers. Last night we heard music by Leonard Bernstein (arranged by Paul Chihara), Chrise Thile, Clint Needham, and Aaron Copland. And although the Copland was undoubtedly the sole truly great masterpiece of the evening, there was something to enjoy and admire in every piece.
The program began with the suite that Paul Chihara has arranged from Bernstein's one-act opera, "Trouble in Tahiti." In its original form, this piece has been a longtime favorite of mine, so it struck me as a good idea for somebody to extract a purely instrumental suite so that one might hear the best parts on a concert without the need for a production and the expense of engaging vocal soloists (or, one might add, to hear Bernstein's great melodies without having to hear the sometimes uncomfortable lyrics that Bernstein wrote for this creation about a troubled marriage). Chihara retained and expanded on Bernstein's already-colorful orchestration, although it struck me as I was listening to this world premiere performance that I actually missed the voices! What I'm hoping is that the piece gets taken up and played by more ensembles and earns a quick recording so that it can become more familiar in this form, since it provides striking evidence of Bernstein's melodic gifts at their best.
And melodic gifts – or rather, the eschewal of melody – is where all too much of 20th century music went wrong. Even Bernstein, an eager proselytizer for new music during his period as musical director of the New York Philharmonic, came to believe that the adventures away from tonality and singable melody by many composers had been a mistake, as he revealed in his Norton Lectures at Harvard University.
Chris Thile's Mandolin Concerto (Ad astra per alas porci), performed here with the composer as soloist, was to me a prime example of the problems with contemporary music. Thile's roots are in popular music. He is without doubt a stunning virtuoso on the mandolin, and he has composed the concerto to show off his virtuosity. But with all the rhythmic movement, the excited scales and strums, the vivid orchestral colors, it didn't seem to me to have enough melodic interest to sustain its length. It was almost as if he felt that to be suitable for the classical concert hall, he had to write music that avoided anything that might be derisively labeled a "tune." But to me "tunes" are one of the essential elements of musical communication, and a piece made up largely of gestures without memorable tunes is a forgetable piece. Perhaps I am misjudging it, since it had all the other basic elements in abundance, and it was my first hearing, but I concluded that in straining to be "serious" the composer fell short of writing a memorable piece.
Thile favored the audience with two solo encores. During the concerto, he had played directly behind a microphone – a necessary boost for the tiny acoustic mandolin confronting a strong chamber orchestra. For his remarks to the audience and solo pieces, he stepped to the edge of the stage, eschewing – whether unconsciously or consciously, I know not -the assistance of the microphone, perhaps forgetting the sheer size and volume of Carnegie Hall. I was sitting in the front row of the dress circle, and I could barely make out some of what he was saying. Then he sang a song with mandolin accompaniment, which sounded quite distant and at times seemed almost to disappear in the sheer size of the hall. His second encore was a movement from a JS Bach unaccompanied violin piece, played faster than most violinists would play it and distorted in ways that defy what we know of Baroque performance practice. But it was a triumph of virtuosity that brought down the house. It was the only piece performed yesterday not by an American composer!
After intermission we had another premiere, commissioned by Orpheus as part of its regular commissioning program for young composers. Clint Needham's "When We Forget" was dedicated to persons living with Alzheimer's Disease and their caregivers, and was inspired by a poem recounting the memory loss caused by that medical condition. At first I thought it would be, like the Thile concerto, a mere melange of gestures and colors without tunes, but Needham managed to create something a bit more memorable. Indeed, as the music transitions from the opening gestures to a section with repeated arpeggios, I was suddenly struck at how the piece resembles some of the music of Wojciech Kilar, the leading Polish composer – especially his Piano Concerto. (There is a prominent piano part in the Needham piece.) I am a big fan of Kilar. There is an excellent recording of his Piano Concerto available on the Polish Dux label. Anybody who heard Needham's piece and found the idiom attractive might like to check out the Kilar. I have no idea whether Needham is familiar with Kilar's music, of course, but I was struck by the resemblance. It is a style that depends for its effect on repetitive figuration, frequently layered under very long-stemmed melodic statements. While it doesn't rely on memorable tunes, but rather rhythmic repetition, to make its points, it tends to draw the listener in far more than the gestural abstractions of much contemporary music. Needham demonstrated great skill in projecting varied moods with effective orchestration and variations in tempo, dynamics, and style of sound production.
Finally, Orpheus played part of its core repertoire, Copland's suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring, in a slightly modified version of the original chamber ensemble arrangement. Copland originally wrote the ballet for an ensemble of 13 instruments anchored by the piano. Responding to requests for a version that would use the full resources of the symphony orchestra, he arranged the familiar suite that is the basis for most peoples' knowledge of this music. However, after a few decades of the orchestral suite having primacy, there was interest in hearing the full score in its original form, and Copland made a recording for Columbia, whose effect was to inspire a new arrangement of the suite, reverting to the original instrumentation, so that the music could be played in its more compact form by chamber orchestras. Orpheus modifies this further by increasing the string body (I counted 21 musicians on the stage), which helps to preserve some of the greater impact of the orchestral version – an interesting compromise, and quite effective, although I still miss the extra winds – trumpets, oboes, horns – that Copland added for the orchestral version.
Throughout the program, regardless of which piece they were playing, Orpheus triumphed as usual with marvelous performances. Eschewing a conductor, they perform everything in true chamber music style, closely listening to each other, with designated leading players having worked out the interpretation in advance of rehearsals. Every concert I have attended by Orpheus over the years has been a satisfying experience, even when I was not wholly persuaded by every piece they programmed, because the ensemble projects so much involvement and enthusiasm combined with immaculate preparation. And thus it was yesterday.