League of Composers/ISCM: Concert Review

Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM. Photo credit: Ron Gordon
Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM. Photo credit: Ron Gordon

Wednesday night was the debut of the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM “” an improbable eighty-five years after the organization’s founding. As Jerry pointed out earlier, the NY Times included strangely sweeping and sadly misinformed coverage leading up to the concert. However, this did little to dissuade an enthusiastic audience from attending the performance. They were treated to quite an evening. Below are a few highlights:

-Lou Karchin: An excellent choice as conductor. Lou did a fine job leading the orchestra in a varied and challenging program.

-Musicians: Anyone acquainted with new music in New York was apt to recognize a number of the area’s finest participating. It showed.

-John Schaeffer: Despite appearing a bit rumpled onstage, the radio host lent star power, a sense of flow, and good-natured humor to the proceedings. His interviews with composers before each of their pieces were played combined user-friendly setups of the music with questions designed to let the audience get to know a bit about each composer’s approach and personality.

-Elliott Carter: Having one of the venerable co-chairs of League of Composers/ISCM’s represented on the concert was a classy move. The evening included a stunning performance of In the Distances of Sleep, Carter’s first settings of Wallace Stevens for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra. Soloist Kate Lindsey shined in these songs at the Tanglewood Carterfest last summer. If anything, her performance here was even more lovely; assured, nuanced, and tremendously attentive to every detail of diction and dynamic.   Schaeffer interviewed Carter before the performance. In response to a query about his continued productivity, Carter replied, “I’ve become fanatic about it. I don’t have any jobs to do any more. I can sit in a room and write music all day, and there’s nothing that pleases me more!”


-Gharra: Christopher Dietz’s sheepish admission that he knew little about ISCM prior to winning their composition competition(!) demonstrated that the organization still needs to do more to get out the word during this time of revitalization and re-branding. Still, Dietz’s captivating music is likely to have made the audience forget the gaffe rather quickly. He came up with the title (meaning “desert storm”) after composing the piece – with the help of Google and in consultation with an Egyptian-American cab driver. But Gharra’s strikingly dramatic formal design and fluidly varied pitch language – which encompassed everything from extended minor-key passages to supple microtonal bends – was worthy of the appellation.


-Alvin Singleton’s After Choice was simpler in design, but eloquently so. A string orchestra piece, it consisted of intertwining arco melodies and pizzicati, often in two-part counterpoint or – even starker – played in unisons or octaves. Written in homage to jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins, it didn’t feature anything so overt as jazz inflections. Rather, Singleton based the piece on string parts from a previous orchestral work that Jenkins had admired.


-Julia Wolfe’s The Vermeer Room is filled with beautifully sculpted, imaginatively scored verticals. The harmonic language and orchestration proved quite persuasive. I’m not sure I ‘grok’ the piece’s pacing just yet; I want to give it a second hearing before weighing in.


-Charles Wuorinen’s Synaxis featured four soloists in a sinfonia concertante that draws on the Orpheus myths as loose touchstones, Schaeffer was eager for Wuorinen to more precisely describe the connections between musical and extramusical inspiration; but the composer made it clear that this was no piece of program music.   Instead, the audience was treated to a showcase for four superlative soloists: oboist Robert Ingliss, clarinetist Alan Kay, French horn-player Patrick Pridemore, and double bassist Timothy Cobb. Cast in four movements, Synaxis gave each a chance to play with abundant virtuosity. The bass part displayed particular flair, and required more than a bit of courage: jaunty leaps, high-lying passages, and fleet bowed flurries. With its combination of careful ensemble coordination and bravura showmanship, Synaxis seemed an apt – and appropriately ambitious – way to end the 85th season of League of Composers/ISCM. Let’s hope for more orchestra concerts during their 86th year!

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