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Water theme for unusual concert

James Marquis - Columnist - (mug) photo taken 10-28-05 (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

James Marquis - Columnist - (mug) photo taken 10-28-05 (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

The opening program in the ASO's 2010-2011 series reveals divers themes linked to venues other than itself. This one spotlights the Albany Riverquarium insinuating water, thus the music highlighted that element.

The concert on September 11th coincided with the ninth anniversary of the internal air attacks at three sites and a fourth "would-have-been" but for its interruption of 49 civilian heroes high above a lonely field somewhere in a Pennsylvania countryside. ASO Maestro Claire Fox Hillard chose to commemorate these tragedies with a well known piece often used as a musical "in memoriam" anent such occasions: Samuel Barber's beautiful Adagio for Strings.

The piece has an interesting history to wit: the 26 year old American composer first placed it as the second (or slow-Adagio) movement of his first string quartet, Opus 11 of 1936. It languished there until the great Arturo Toscanni heard it, was immediately smitten and implored the young man to make an arrangement of it for the strings of his famous NBC radio orchestra. Who could resist such a beguiling offer?

Barber did that; sent it to him. It was returned without comment. Naturally, the young man was mortified. Perhaps sensing this, the conductor sent word via third party that the score's return was because he no longer needed it. He had memorized it and intended to play it on some future program of his own choosing. It was introduced on November 5, 1938. It became an immediate hit and has remained so ever since.This writer heard it around 1949. The fate of the rest of the 4 movement quartet while not having altogether disappeared from the literature, has, unfortunately diminished somewhat in stature.

Barber used the grand arch structure with its deft interplay of contrapuntal lines exploiting a single lovely, devotional theme which does not develop but exploits itself. The composer's genius lies in his masterfully manipulating the simple melody contrapuntally, colorfully and dynamically while carefully working the thematic arc from an entrancing pianissimo (very soft) to its fortissimo (very loud) zenith, then carefully down again to its touching beginning, then, in a moving finish, making it gradually die away into nothingness. There was no applause. The orchestra remained seated. The conductor quietly left the stage. The audience kept their seats. The atmosphere pensive; all in emotional obeisance to our lost fellow Americans on that tragic day.

The Water Music theme now relieved the memorial music with Georg Frideric Handel's second Suite in D Major from the Water Music. The six movement Baroque work was a world apart from the foregone utterance with its joi de vivre character: energetic, dancey, with only a touch of sentiment here and there. It was written to accompany a pleasant, carefree afternoon along the Thames as royalty lounged comfortably in one boat as another with orchestra sailed alongside, playing this delightful music for entertainment.

The post intermission fare brought us the centerpiece for the evening. The brash, young Chinese avant garde composer Tan Dun's Water Concerto for Water Instruments and Orchestra he calls it. Finished in 1998 it is truly a remarkable piece of music that uses four huge kettle drumlike glass open containers filled with water, each surrounded by a bevy of different, smaller idio and membranophonic instruments. The water drums were bathed in vari-colored lights giving the mesmerizing effect that the water was constantly changing color. The guest percussionist Tom Sherwood, borrowed from the Atlanta Symphony, was assisted by two other percussionists ranged on the extreme ends of the wide stage. Sherwood presided at the two other instruments at the center. The hand swirling of the water created its own peculiar color as it contrasted with the idio-membrano effects.

How did all this happen together with the variegated colors inherent in the orchestra? It is simpler than one might think. While the orchestra read from its scored parts, the percussionists read from "Charts" much like jazz orchestras or smaller jazz ensembles do. They created the many colors and effects, using the big water drums as points of departure and return. Procedures such as improvisation and aleatory (chance, exploratory freedom in sonar and percussive effect) expanded the expressive and affective boundaries while the orchestra "commented" upon and seconded what the soloists were doing. We were reminded of the Javanese gamelan orchestras, one of which we heard while a conservatory student at the Detroit Institute for Musical Arts. The work has the traditional contrasting four movement markings but they all ran together in such a way that only tempo and mood changes were recognized while maintaining and enhancing expressive content

Goodness! What an aural experience this was! Sensory awareness, aurally and visually, was thoroughly satiated.

The program was rebalanced - somewhat by the closing piece: music from Bedrich Smetana's Vitava better known as Die Moldau -a river that flown through Prague, Bohemia. It is from a much larger work entitled Ma Vlast (My Homeland).

From that night's fare, one wonders if Maestro Hillard can follow that. Well....we'll just have to wait and see. He usually does. The interest will surely be piqued to see how he does it. He certainly has adequate instrumental forces beneath his hands.

James Marquis is a composer and emeritus professor of music at Albany State University.