Underwood Day 2

Wednesday, May 7

When I arrive at Skirball for day two of the American Composers Orchestra’s New Music Readings, the mood seems a bit more relaxed than the previous day. I’m excited to hear some new works, and others I already heard the day before, all of which will receive full run-throughs for the purpose of recording.

Leanna Primiani: Sirens
Conductor: Brad Lubman

Lubman makes note of a small revision in the score and alerts the musicians to how he will conduct a few tempo and meter changes. There is very sparse instrumentation at the top of the piece, trumpets playing a soft counterpoint figure. Strings take over, then a slightly ominous-sounding wind chorale…. Lubman stops to rehearse a section with a five-against-four juxtaposition. One percussionist alerts Primiani of an impossibly fast instrument switch, which she fixes by simply cutting out one of the instruments. Another lesson learned “on the job.” Piece swells; neo-romantic string and brass writing is flavored by dissonances. Staggered phrases in the strings and high woodwinds (with clearly more than two distinct parts in the violins) create a cascading effect. Lubman stops again to let musicians know that “M for Mahler is in four.”

Despite the staggered rhythms of the previous section, the overall feel of this piece is less rhythmic than the two pieces Lubman conducted yesterday, which adds a refreshing element of lyricism to his conducting style. After rehearsing the cascading section at a slower tempo, minor notation mistakes in the score are discovered and corrected. Primiani asks that each subsequent accelerando come more quickly than the previous one. Lubman confirms with the composer that the figures in this accelerando section be played more percussively. Like fellow composer Andrew McKenna Lee, Primiani seems a little bit older, and her experience is even more evident after reading her biography: she just received her DMA from the University of Southern California, and Sirens is set to be premiered by Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in February 2009, a performance for which the work done here today will no doubt prove invaluable. The atmospheric nature of much of the piece requires a lot of work on balance.

Eventually, many of the piece’s technical wrinkles seem to have been smoothed over and Lubman calls for a full run-through. The orchestra sounds much more confident this time; the exposed solo parts in particular sound much less shaky and the balance better. There are a couple instances of chatter between instrumentalists about their parts, but otherwise this is performance quality. The run-through finishes a few minutes early, and Lubman offers to re-record a short section where Primiani said there were still a few issues.

Composers seem much more relaxed during the breaks. One thing that came up at lunch yesterday was the fact that most of a composer’s work is done in seclusion, and beyond the benefit of having their work heard by a real orchestra, readings such as this provide an opportunity for composers to meet and socialize with other composers. After yesterday’s feedback session, where it seemed as if composers had a certain part of themselves laid bare through such acute critiques of their work, it is not surprising that there is more socializing between composers, mentors, and members of the ACO and Meet the Composer entourages.

Takuma Itoh: Sunrise from a Distant Past
Conductor: Anne Manson

Manson and the musicians discuss much of the piece before beginning. These types of preliminary talk-throughs seem all the more important for these first two pieces, since they weren’t worked on yesterday. The soft but tense string writing and atmospheric harp at the beginning of the piece remind me a little of Varese without the crunchiness. Woodwinds and solo violin trade atonal melodic passages. Solo trumpets and horn trade lines apparently based around pitch sets, before they are joined by the rest of the orchestra and the volume grows to a scream with the brass on top. The piece ends with a soft string diminuendo.

(American Composers Orchestra Concertmaster Deborah Wong consults conductor Anne Manson about one of the scores during a break at the Underwood New Music Readings. Photo: American Composers Orchestra)

When Manson goes back to the top to rehearse, she works meticulously, which isn’t surprising; although the overall effect of the piece is atmospheric, there’s a lot of internal rhythmic complexity. Manson spends a lot of time in on one passage that features solos and entrances by full sections. Manson and Itoh also work very closely on balance issues. Itoh seems pretty clearly set on what he wants in this department.

At the ten-minute warning, Manson begins one more run-through for recording purposes. During this second reading, more texture comes through and there is a much broader dynamic palette. Part of it, however, is that Itoh has asked for louder brass, and now they’re really blasting (as is the timpanist), and I can’t help thinking of the issue of decibel levels and hearing loss that is becoming a problem in the orchestra world, with many pointing to composers as the main culprits. I have to admit that I liked the piece better with this level of climax, so what’s a composer to do?

(Participants gathered during a break at the ACO’s Underwood New Music Readings. Back row, left to right: Conductor Brad Lubman; mentors Derek Bermel and Christopher Theofanidis; and composers Conrad Winslow, Andrew McKenna Lee, Roger Zare, and Ruby Fulton; Front row, left to right: Conductor Anne Manson, ACO Board Chairman Paul Underwood, mentor Chen Yi, Mentor Robert Beaser, composer Leanna Primiani, mentor Christopher Rouse, and composer Takuma Itoh. Photo: American Composers Orchestra)

During the break, composers and mentors pose for a photo. Primiani assumes a dominant position in the center, flanked by Beaser and Rouse. Yi, dwarfed by Beaser, is smiling warmly as always. Lee looks more cheerful today in a bright orange shirt. Composers and mentors continue to socialize after the photo. The mood is playful, the composers and mentors even appearing to tease each other a bit.

Conrad Winslow: The Violence of Ragtime
Brad Lubman, conductor

Roger Zare: Green Flash
Anne Manson, conductor

Ruby Fulton: ameriwaste
Brad Lubman, conductor

Andrew McKenna Lee: For Dear Life
Anne Manson, conductor

Someone announces that there will be no break between the first two pieces. I’m extremely excited to hear all of these pieces—which I heard in fragments for the most part yesterday—performed back-to-back-to-back. Lubman does choose to touch up a couple small sections of The Violence of Ragtime, with input from Winslow, but when Lubman announces they will run it through for recording, the audience (which appears slightly larger than yesterday) is attentive and full of anticipation. (It occurs to me that I have not noticed one person cough through any of the readings or rehearsals yesterday or today.) The piece does indeed lock in better and has a lot more bounce today. For today’s reading, Rouse sits with Beaser, Theofanidis, and Yi, the four of them simply enjoying the music, their scores closed.

(Conductor Brad Lubman listens to an ACO musician’s remarks while working on one of the readings. Photo: American Composers Orchestra)

Lubman finishes Violence right on time and Manson races to the podium to lead Green Flash. The percussion section, however, needs a few more minutes to set up, so Manson rehearses other sections first. Once everyone is ready, Manson wastes no time in starting the run-through, as the time allotted is barely enough to give the piece a full performance. The piece gets derailed halfway through, but Manson starts in again immediately. It really takes hearing a piece like this straight through to get the right effect, since textures gradually shift to other textures and the buildups take a long time. During the ensuing break, Lubman talks through parts of the next piece with percussionists. It’s amazing how much performers must maximize their time during readings like this.

I had a feeling from the title that Fulton’s ameriwaste had political undertones, but I don’t realize how strong until Lubman rehearses the last movement, titled “The Landfill Dirge,” before the run-through. Lubman stops in the middle of the run-through to give a reminder about a certain tempo change. The piece goes off very well from there, however, and I particularly enjoy the way it grooves at the end.

Manson gets to the stage quickly for Lee’s For Dear Life and notifies the orchestra that the composer has cut four bars from the piece, and they play through the section to get that change. The performers talk through a few more sections with Lee at the edge of the stage for easy access, and Manson informs the musicians of one more cut, and again, they play to get the transition down. When Manson starts the run-through, the opening is taut and very in-sync rhythmically. Lee ignores his score for the run-through, instead listening with eyes closed. The piece turns out to be the one work that is played all the way through without stopping, and the excitement is undeniable, the three-against-two feel in a late march-like section coming through much better than yesterday. The piece ends a few minutes ahead of schedule and Lee asks to work a couple small sections. As always in music, there’s more that can be perfected.