Classical CD Reviews

“Orchestra Underground: X10D” = KEERIL MAKAN: Dream Lightly; EVAN ZIPORYN: Big Grenadilla; FRED HO: When the Real Dragons Fly!; NED McGOWAN: Bantammer Swing; NEIL ROLNICK: iFiddle Concerto – American Composers Orch./George Manahan – ACO (2 CDs)

Great introduction to hear a vital American ensemble and learn some compelling new music.

Published on January 22, 2013

“Orchestra Underground: X10D” = KEERIL MAKAN: Dream Lightly; EVAN ZIPORYN: Big Grenadilla; FRED HO: When the Real Dragons Fly!; NED McGOWAN: Bantammer Swing; NEIL ROLNICK: iFiddle Concerto – American Composers Orch./George Manahan – ACO (2 CDs)

“Orchestra Underground: X10D” = KEERIL MAKAN: Dream Lightly; EVAN ZIPORYN: Big Grenadilla; FRED HO: When the Real Dragons Fly!; NED McGOWAN: Bantammer Swing; NEIL ROLNICK: iFiddle Concerto – American Composers Orch./George Manahan – ACO (two discs), 78:35 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The American Composers Orchestra has been an essential part of the New York contemporary music scene – more importantly, the national new music scene – since the late 1970s. They have earned an impressive and cutting edge series at the coveted Carnegie Hall location and their concerts are well attended, lively and always stimulating. The ACO has made it its mission to promote new American music and, in fact, has spurred the success of many younger and lesser-known American composers.

Their current and ongoing series, “Orchestra Underground” is under the direction of current music director George Manahan (recently honored for his outstanding commitment to American music both in the concert hall as well as in the opera house). This latest release, ”X10D” is especially interesting as it features music that combines some very unusual solo instruments with orchestra and, in each case, the solo instrument is stretched to the limits of its physical capabilities (and those of the player!)

Three of the works involved explore the very lowest register of the given instruments and are unique in the timbres chosen. For example, Evan Ziporyn demonstrates the virtuosic possibilities of the bass clarinet, integrating his own ideas with influences ranging from Balinese gamelan to jazz to Stravinsky in his Big Grenadilla. Ziporyn, a bass clarinet virtuoso, makes special use of the lower range of this instrument’s dark rich timbre and the fact that grenadilla is the densest of all African black woods, giving this work a very “dense” feel. The work comes to a big jazzy conclusion and is, honestly, one of the best pieces for bass clarinet I have heard!

Fred Ho, makes “real dragons fly” in a tour-de-force and call-to-action for baritone saxophone and orchestra that combines Chinese folk song with an avant-jazz perspective. Ho is himself an amazing composer-performer and, in the liner notes, he offers these comments on the work, “The title of this work is based on a traditional Chinese folksong used to say farewell. When the Real Dragons Fly! is a farewell to obstructionists and gatekeepers who prevent the real creative forces in humanity. It is a liberation song—allowing people who’ve been held down, blockaded, obstructed, disappeared, marginalized, and ignored to fly and soar. It is dedicated to all imaginative forces that want to work together to bring about human liberation—trying to free humanity from slavish consumption of both unneeded material items as well as foolish items”. This is Ho’s first formal use of a traditional Western-European orchestra. This is a strangely fascinating work that straddles the line between progressive jazz and the eastern sounds it emulates and utilizes but is quite entertaining and Ho is seriously talented on his instrument!

Ned McGowan’s Bantammer Swing allows us to hear the beautiful but seldom heard timbre of the contrabass flute. As played by McGowan, it is capable of everything from near breathless calm to amazing driving bass riffs that propel the orchestra forward. The contrabass flute is the larger cousin of the normal flute, sounding two octaves below and taking up four times as much space. It is a sound seldom heard in the classical repertoire, and Bantammer Swing is likely the first ever solo concerto written for it. The piece is a standard concerto form of three movements with a cadenza. McGowan uses the unique possibilities of the instrument; its singing highs, the rich middles, the sonorous lows, and also some of its possibilities for extended techniques. McGowan comments on the title, “…recently moved to a different house after living in a little Amsterdam attic apartment on the Binnen Bantammer Street. I chose the title to commemorate my time there and because most of the voices in Bantammer Swing are the ones developed there.” This work is absolutely beautiful in spots and compelling as a whole.

The other two works on the album partner electric instruments with an otherwise acoustic orchestra. Keeril Makan’s Dream Lightly features the electric guitar of Seth Josel. Unlike what the sounds electric guitar usually conjures up, this work features only the most delicate and ethereal guitar harmonics, making the piece an almost ”anti-concerto”. Dream Lightly has a very dream-like, almost “new age” quality to it. The guitarist almost always plays harmonics and the harmonics hover above the guitar, oftentimes slightly, but purposefully, out of tune with instruments played in a conventional manner. This is a very ethereal and plaintive work.

Finally, Neil Rolnick, a pioneer in electronic music, introduces us to the “cyborg-fiddle” he created with soloist Todd Reynolds and the resultant iFiddle Concerto. Rolnick cites the birth of his first grandson and thinking about transmitting knowledge and traditions over time as the inspiration for this work. Rolnick comments, “First, as I began to work on the piece, I found myself in a kind of middle ground between the past and the future. From the past, the idea of making a real concerto was very appealing. As I think of the concerto from the 19th century, it is a virtuoso vehicle that sets up a competitive binary relationship between soloist and the orchestra. Second, thinking towards the future, this isn’t just a concerto for violin, but a concerto for a cyborg violin that has been intimately joined to a computer…” Certainly the sounds therein are not what we usually hear but this is a very interesting piece indeed.

All the music in this collection is extremely interesting and amazingly performed! The dynamics in these works will test your playback system and – maybe your tolerance – but each work is born of a unique vision and some very off the beaten path timbres. The ACO and George Manahan are to be commended for not just this amazing collection but also their ongoing work finding and promoting vital new American music.  I also found the program notes (from the ACO website) very helpful in describing these works and, as such, they are paraphrased and extracted above. In the absence of any information, these are pieces that would defy description but still be amazing.

—Daniel Coombs

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