Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Monday, May 07, 2012

U-Md. Symphony Orchestra gets out of its chairs

Giving music a visual life

We often hear that orchestral music’s problem in the modern world is that it lacks a visual element. And we often see attempts to address this involving video screens, animations or even the computer-generated geometric forms you can play along with your music on iTunes.
But what the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra and choreographer Liz Lermanoffered Friday night to open a program titled “Auferstehen” (“revive” or “resurrect”) blew all that out of the water.
The piece was Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” It began when a group of young musicians, barefoot, in street clothes, holding their instruments, walked out onto a stage that was empty but for a couple of harps and a few strategically placed stools for the cellists. They lay down, sleeping, frozen; until the solo flute made her entrance, walking out from the wings and moving through the silent ranks like the Pied Piper, stirring the others awake, drawing them into the music after her.
If you saw this on video, you’d assume it was dubbed; orchestra musicians can’t play and move at the same time. Never assume; these Maryland students could. Having memorized the score, they walked around the stage with naturalistic ease, grouping in small constellations or moving en masse, eddying and flowing with the music. Now everyone massed into two antiphonal groups that took turns driving each other back; now the crowd parted to release a solo clarinet who crossed center stage for her few phrases in the sun before melting back into the throng.
The other reason you’d think it was dubbed is that the playing was so good: increasingly confident, vividly expressive, and without the kinds of balance problems you might assume would result from letting musicians wander all over the stage. Freed from the black-clad anonymity of the orchestral status quo, allowed to assert their own identities, the musicians took responsibility for one of the most remarkable collaborations I’ve seen.
You probably couldn’t do this with a professional orchestra. The Maryland program’s “Music in Mind” series, of which this concert was a part, deliberately explores different ways of approaching the experience of concert music, often with collaborators from outside the music world (such as a “Petruchka” with puppets and props directed by Doug Fitch in 2008). The point is less to find new templates than, as the orchestra’s Web site ambitiously puts it, “to offer members an experience of art-making that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.” Friday’s concert was one of those happy instances of an experiment that shows why experimentation is worthwhile. It’s a shame that there was only one performance; anyone who loves orchestral music should have had a chance to see it.
As if to underline the point that it’s possible to love both the experimental and tradition deeply and at the same time, James Ross, the orchestra’s music director, paired this “Afternoon of a Faun” with Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony (“Auferstehung”), one of the biggest pieces in the orchestral repertoire, offered with no experimentation whatsoever. Or was there? To some extent, the intensity of the Debussy carried over into the Mahler in a chamber-music transparency and a distinctively personal approach. The biting cellos at the start of the piece sounded particularly intimate and raw. And after having gotten to know individual players by watching them in the Debussy, it was hard not to keep checking in on them, now in concert garb, among the enormous forces of the Mahler. The physical element even stood out: There are a lot of comings and goings in this piece, as brass and percussionists keep leaving to play passages offstage, and once the bombshell percussionist had established her physical authority with her gyrations in the Debussy, she held attention even as one of a team of percussionists in the symphony.
But the risk-taking of a distinctive, personal approach paid off less well here, musically. Ross took slow tempi that opened up the piece, stripped away the bombast and exposed the individual players in many ways just as much as the Debussy did. It was an ambitious reading, but impressive though the U-Md. orchestra is, it would have taken the Berlin Philharmonic to sustain some of the long arcs of music Ross was trying to draw out. There were a few moments of pure inspiration — a punched-out climax in the first movement, or an unbelievable hush, like the whole orchestra on tiptoe, in the third. And the University of Maryland Concert Choir was outstanding: The slowness, here, let every word of the final, climactic movement be heard (Jennifer Forni and Yvette Smith, U-Md. alumnae, were the soloists). Too often, though, the slow tempi let the air out of the piece, and the personal approach came off like a friend who talks too long and doesn’t get to the point.
And yet, all of that talking did have something to communicate. I found the next day that the music had gotten under my skin, so that passages kept flicking through my head.
Too, this concert was about training young artists, and the experience of taking part and learning that new approaches can indeed revive the old can only be a good thing for the musicians, and audiences, of our future.


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