The American Composers Orchestra presents a range of style and scope within a single concert that must have been startling when they started life 30 years ago. It is still remarkable today. This New York City ensemble now a regular visitor to Philadelphia, thanks to Annenberg threw out a dizzying variety of sound Sunday night, opening, perhaps emblematically, with a solo pipa work written and played by Min Xiao-Fen that was dedicated to Miles Davis but showed the influence of blues master Robert Johnson as well. Her occasional Asian-flavored scatting only added to the compellingly eclectic flavor of the music.
Harold Meltzer's "Virginal" also featured an instrument not usually associated with new music, the harpsichord. Meltzer, who was the soloist, is intensely interested in texture, building it up in layers. The work begins with solo harpsichord, soon joined by harp, then more instruments. But it doesn't go anywhere, and we are left with a collection of pretty sounds in search of a meaning. Kurt Rohde's "White Boy/Man Invisible" also came across as music more concerned with process and detail than cohesiveness, although it was refreshing to hear what is by now an almost quaint use of post-serial chromaticism, imbued with the great spirit of Alban Berg. In this context, the music of Tania León was nearly operatic in "IndÃƒÆ’Ã‚Âgena," comfortably mixing academic and native Cuban music to create an aural slice of life, climaxing with a colorful evocation of carnival before ending with a sweet, tender growl.
Vijay Iyer is probably best-known as a jazz pianist, and was the soloist for his first orchestral composition, "Interventions." Combining an improvised solo with a scored ensemble is a tricky proposition. It is hard to avoid a kind of culture clash. Iyer is ambitious, but he brings it off with a heft and dramatic vision and a daring sense of soundscape. Steven Mackey goes further in "Deal," scored for chamber orchestra, drum kit and electric guitar. The audacious challenge here is to get all of these forces to cohere into a blended whole, and this was largely the case. Mackey, on guitar, manages such feats as creating sonorities out of the combination of his instrument, cellos and hi-hats. His own playing, augmented by computer effects, is overtly rock-influenced, with smashing, bluesy solos and blistering runs. Yet the sound of the ensemble was often lush and vibrant, for which conductor Dennis Russell Davies deserves no small praise. Ironically, the description that Andrew McKenna Lee gave of his own delightful, if modest, solo guitar piece, that of a cross between Scarlatti and Hendrix, is much better-suited to the music of Mackey.