“Emerging Composers, Vol. 1” & “Playing it UNSafe” = 2 American Composers Orchestra CDs

by | Mar 15, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

“Emerging Composers, Vol. 1” = KATI AGÓCS: Pearls; MICHAEL GATONSKA: After the Wings of Migratory Birds; FANG MAN: Resurrection; CLINT NEEDHAM: Chamber Symphony; GREGORY SPEARS: Finishing – American Composers Orch./George Manahan, Brad Lubman, Jeffrey Milarsky, conductors – ACO, 84:19 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

“Playing it UNSafe” = ANNA CLYNE: Tender Hooks; JONATHAN DAWE:  Overture and Ballet Music from ‘Armide’; NED McGOWAN: Bantammer Swing; CHARLES NORMAN MASON: Additions; DAN TRUEMAN: Silicon/Carbon: An Anti-Concerto Grosso – American Composers Orch./George Manahan, Brad Lubman, Jeffrey Milarsky, conductors – ACO, 66:39 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The American Composers Orchestra remains an essential part of the New York contemporary music scene. They continue to perform 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.

These two recent releases go a long way to proving the viability and creativity of music director George Manahan and this series. “Emerging Composers Series: Vol. 1”, features live world premiere recordings by five composers, all of which the ACO commissioned or premiered between 2006 and 2009. There is an absolute wealth of new music and “brain food” to be found in the whole series; these two discs being prime examples.

Kati Agócs’ Pearls blends together a series of exquisite, intimate sonorities. Clint Needham’s Chamber Symphony explores themes of personal and universal transformation. This composition was the result of his winning ACO’s prestigious Underwood commission.  Both of these works have a very accessible sound and are quite dramatic and compelling.

Greg Spears’ Finishing creates a very suspenseful sound filled with shimmering flute and trumpet solos, exotic percussion and shimmering strings. Princeton-based Spears has been called a “post-minimalist” composer.

Fang Man uses the appreciable skills of clarinet soloist and ACO creative advisor Derek Bermel and electronics, performed by the composer and Alexis Baskind. Man’s work also relies on melodies from Chinese opera in her Resurrection. Michael Gatonska uses the fascinating and fluid configurations of birds in flight as the organizing principal behind his After the Wings of Migratory Birds, creating music that migrates through space with dynamic energy. There are actual bird sounds present and I found this work to be most interesting!

ACO’s “Playing It Unsafe” was the first of the ACO digital-only albums and is also the name of its new series featuring music in premieres and frequently exploring new compositional techniques and unusual instrumentations. This disc features music from their first “Playing it Unsafe” program. Anna Clyne’s Tender Hooks is an experimental work created by collaborators Anna Clyne, Jeremy Flower and Joshue Ott. The work stretches the orchestra by means of live electronics. Tender Hooks features technologies and instruments created and developed by the laptop-artists themselves. Anna Clyne served as the Chicago Symphony’s Mead Composer-in-Residence through the 2010-2011 season; Clyne has also served as the Director of the New York Youth Symphony’s program for young composers “Making Score.”

Jonathan Dawe provides the Overture and Ballet Music from Armide.Armide” is patterned after Lully’s masterwork of the same name and is a new opera set in 2019 in post-war Iraq. Ned McGowan’s Bantammer Swing features the seldom heard timbre of the contrabass flute. The piece is a standard concerto form of three movements with a cadenza. 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 is a virtuosic and rather wild work.

Charles Norman Mason’s Additions for orchestra and digital audio consists of two parts. The concert piece, on the recording, and “Pods” of instrumentalists designed for performance in various spaces within the lobby. Charles Norman Mason has been recognized repeatedly for his originality and attention to color.

Silicon/Carbon: An Anti-Concerto Grosso by Dan Trueman features, alongside the ACO, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), an ensemble of computer-based instruments. The laptop itself is an instrument in this piece; PLOrk is actually able to control its sound and drives the trackpad and keys. Regarding the title, in the original Star Trek TV series, one episode featured a silicon-based being called the “Horta” that lived below the surface of a planet named Janus 6. This piece explores one particular way that familiar carbon-based music making can meet new, silicon-based music. (Any work somehow connected to Star Trek is worth investigating!) Dan Trueman is a composer and performer, primarily with the Norwegian hardanger fiddle and the laptop.

The American Composers Orchestra is an absolute treasure for fans of new music and anyone wishing to explore new, vibrant orchestral music. Each of these pieces on these discs above is, in my opinion, well worth hearing. My personal favorites are the works by Gatonska, Spears, Clyne and Trueman. Honestly, each is well worth exploring and – in these days of budget cuts and the new expendability of fine arts – let us hope that the ACO will continue its vital and exciting work!

I credit much of the information on the pieces from the ACO website and I strongly suggest listeners get to know something about these composers from their websites, linked below.


—Daniel Coombs

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