Orchestra of the ISCM – Concert Review

Lou Karchin leads the Orchestra of the League of Composers (photo: Ron Gordon)

The Orchestra of the League of Composers (ISCM) presented the group’s “season finale” at Miller Theatre on Monday June 7, 2010. True, this is a pickup orchestra, but you’d never know it from listening. Composer/conductor Lou Karchin confidently led the group through a wide stylistic range of pieces, including New York and World premieres. WNYC’s Jonathan Schaefer hosted, engaging the composers in brief interviews between the various pieces.

D.J. Sparr’s piece DACCA:DECCA:GAFFA featured ace new music guitarists William Anderson and Oren Fader playing steel string acoustic instruments alongside the ensemble. The title referred to a set of chord progressions that the soloists played; these were adorned by pantonal flourishes from the orchestra. During his interview with Schaefer, Sparr tried to make it sound as if the piece had an elaborate plan. Perhaps its precomposition did, but its surface seemed to come straight out of mainstream popular cinematic music. I felt it had some cowboy movie potential, while my seat partner opted for a fairytale plot. We split the difference with “Cinderella in Laredo.” For the most part, the music didn’t demand much from the soloists: lots of bar chords with the occasional filigree. With such fine guitarists on display, one wishes that Sparr, a guitarist himself, might have reached for more.

Joan Tower admits she has a complicated relationship with titles. Her penchant for using purple in the titles of several works is not an example of synesthesia, but rather an attempt to create an evocative moniker after composing the work. Still, Purple Rhapsody proved quite evocative from a musical standpoint. A lushly pastoral work, it proved a fine showcase for violist Paul Neubauer’s considerable virtuosity and versatility.

Elliott Carter waited until he was 99 years old to set the poetry of Ezra Pound. The result, On Conversing with Paradise for baritone and chamber orchestra, was well worth the wait. Carter bridges the often enigmatic character of Pound’s poems with elements of “mad scene” that hint at the poet’s own personal instability. The result is a brilliantly demanding piece for which requires the soloist to demonstrate superlative dynamic control across a wide range. Schaefer passed along bass-baritone Evan Hughes’ apologies in advance for any vocal struggle – the singer was battling a cold – but indicated that, “Hughes had no intention of missing out on the piece’s New York premiere.” While one can understand his concern, Hughes needn’t have worried: his singing was superb and his characterization spot on. The orchestra was in excellent form here as well and Karchin led a finely detailed rendition of the work, exhorting ample dramatic heft where required. The composer, now 101, was on hand to say a few words and take a bow.

Percussionist/composer Jason Treuting created a quadruple concerto for his ensemble So Percussion and string orchestra. The Percussion Quartet Concerto juxtaposed So’s avant sound effects – tearing pieces of paper and other unconventional devices – with its penchant for groove-making. Treuting suggested that each member of the quartet was affiliated with a segment of the string ensemble. In practice, one just as frequently heard a juxtaposition of drums vs strings: syncopated, dancing percussion set against sustained legato passages from the ISCM collective. Whether fractals or tutti were commanding any given segment of the work, it proved equally diverting.

From a set-changing standpoint, it made perfect sense to close the evening with the NY premiere of Milton Babbitt’s string orchestra piece Transfigured Notes. But from a programming perspective, this was a poorly considered choice. A thorny, labyrinthine, and formidably challenging work, it didn’t stand a chance following So Percussion’s zesty ebullience. Indeed, several audience members walked out mid-performance: a sour note on which to end the evening.

Given that Babbitt co-founded the League with Elliott Carter back in the 1930s, one wishes the retreating faction might have had enough respect to make their exit before the work started; but maybe that was their game all along. While this writer was saddened to hear that Babbitt was unable to attend the performance, perhaps with the rudeness on display it was best that he missed it.

This is a piece that has had a fraught performance history. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned it back in the 70s. Then, finding it too challenging, cancelled its premiere – twice! Gunther Schuller conducted a performance of Transfigured Notes up in Boston in the 90s and made a recording of it, but its first appearance on a NY concert required ISCM programming it in 2010 – a doffing of the cap for one of their founders.

While Karchin and company gave it their best, after a long program fatigue appeared to have set in and intonation problems marred the proceedings. Alas, Transfigured Notes remains a work that hasn’t as yet been realized in an entirely satisfactory fashion. One hopes Karchin will get another crack at it at some point, as he remains one of Babbitt’s most persuasive advocates on the podium. Still, the fact that an occasional ensemble was brave enough to tread where the Philadelphians feared to go says a lot about ISCM’s chutzpah.

The League of Composers is onto something with these orchestra concerts – same time next year?