New composers debut at Annenberg

February 2, 2010

New composers at Annenberg By David Patrick Stearns

Inquirer Classical Music Critic

The American Composers Orchestra is always more a vehicle of possibilities than a complete experience - that's its function - though Saturday's Annenberg Center concert went in more directions than usual. New composers, newish media, and genre fusion were featured in various stages of realization, some of the least-polished efforts being the most absorbing.

"It's cold outside but will be hot in here," assured Paquito D'Rivera, the beloved, ebullient Cuban reed player and the concert's wildest card. His 2007 Conversations With Cachao kept you wondering what would happen next, and if what you were hearing was intentional or a lucky accident. This concerto of sorts for three soloists is a memorial to bassist Israel ("Cachao") Lopez and is best in its middle movement - a gorgeous song without words, with attractive textures and rhythms that draw their energy from seeming to skip a beat when you least expect it.

The other two movements were expansive, impractical, and a little crazy. Improvised cadenzas for the soloists weren't built and framed in any of the usual ways. D'Rivera switched between clarinet and saxophone, effectively, while bassist Robert Black was too often buried by orchestral writing. And the ensemble was expected to have a soloist's agility - which might happen in a better world. Yet D'Rivera's playing was worth everything, with an expressive use of color that went to your soul.

Marriage of sight and sound is nothing new in the concert world, where it tends to be a shotgun wedding, though the solid collaboration between composer Sebastian Currier and videographer Pawel Wojtasik in Next Atlantis was nearly on the level of the now-classic film Decasia. Atlantisexplores New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, often through a fish-eye lens that makes the already surreal city look circular. The first two-thirds of the video, shot with great fluidity and edited without seams, were people-free: skylines, deltas, and poor neighborhoods whose streets had become a deadly version of Venice.

Then came the faces - disillusioned, fearful, and in full Mardi Gras drag. Everybody knows of New Orleans' juxtaposition of singular culture and deep poverty. Revisiting it through Wojtasik's sympathetic eye was riveting. The always substantial Currier contributed whatever was necessary to help the video make its point, selflessly and purposefully subordinate.

The much-discussed conductor Anne Manson, whose prestigious credits include Paris' Ensemble Intercontemporain, made her ACO debut, and was best able to show her considerable abilities in Time Lapse by young composer Roger Zare. The real-time-sped-up quality implied by its title was all too evident in a series of orchestral flourishes and effects that seemed more like a calling card than an earnestly felt piece. But in a new-music concert that pushes the orchestral medium out of its comfort zone, here's a piece that truly knows how to dive back into it. So any complaints aren't serious ones.