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The New World Symphony’s “New Work” program on Friday night began with an announcement by artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas that he was going to be “sitting on the bench” for the evening due to a shoulder problem. Conducting fellow Christian Reif took over the entire program, leading two world premieres in a typically innovative program. Reif acquitted himself very well indeed, drawing brilliant playing from the large orchestral forces in complex contemporary scores.
Much preconcert attention was focused on El Sol Caliente, a collaboration between composer Michael Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison that was commissioned by New World to celebrate the centennial of the city of Miami Beach. (Gordon is a graduate of Miami Beach High School.) After a dozen joint audio-visual works, Gordon and Morrison have become masters of the mixed-media collage of light and sound. Morrison utilized all the surfaces above the stage and the walls at the New World Center for his surround vision film and added a few more, covering the normal seating areas to the sides and back of the stage with screens.
The opening crashing chords accompany video of a huge wave. Morrison’s images range from the aftermath of the 1926 hurricane to bathing beauties, American GIs during World War II, celebrity visits by such luminaries as Bob Hope and the Beatles, youthful spring breakers, even an elephant on the beach. The film turns from black and white to color with pictures of restored art deco hotels to the sounds of clanging bells.
El Sol Caliente certainly provides an eye-filling historical panorama, yet the music lacks the whimsy, drama and variety of Gotham, a Gordon-Morrison work about New York City played by New World in 2009. Except for one brief section, Gordon’s amplified score is unremittingly loud and repetitive, like minimalism on steroids. The music seems a too-obvious accompaniment to a travelogue rather than the lush, sensuous soundscape of Gotham.
Dispatches by Ted Hearne is the latest installment of the New Voices program, a joint venture by the New World, the San Francisco Symphony and music publisher Boosry & Hawkes to mentor young composers in creating orchestral scores. Hearne studied with composers Aaron Jay Kernis and Ezra Laderman, as well as David Lang and Julia Wolf, co-founders with Gordon of the Bang on a Can composers’ collective. Dispatches is dedicated to Gordon.
Hearne utilizes such extended instrumental techniques as having the harp and keyboard players scrape their instruments’ strings with their finger nails and instructing the cellists to insert a wine cork between the second and third strings. He also adds electric guitar and electric bass guitar to the instrumentation. Suggesting the contrasts between noise and pitch, Hearne’s five brief movements conclude with a soft but unresolved coda. Despite many unconventional sound effects that perk up the ears, Dispatches seemed more a demonstration of compositional technique than a coherent statement.
Pop star and University of Miami graduate Bruce Hornsby sang four of his songs in new orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Hornsby related his enthusiasm for the atonal works of Webern and Schoenberg and these new versions combine his signature mix of R & B and roots music with atonal techniques.
Three numbers from the musical SCKBSTD by Hornsby and Chip deMatteo ranged from the patter of “Neighborhood Watch” to vintage Hornsby rock in “Life in the Psychotropics” (about depression drugs) and “When No One’s Mad,” which he described as a bitonal pop song.
Hornsby’s half-spoken vocals were accompanied by instrumental strands suggesting Elliott Carter, Ligeti and Webern. Hornsby’s drummer Sonny Emory offered a wild, dazzling cadenza on the trap set, spinning his sticks while playing, and Chris Croce was the swinging bassist. Musically arresting, the songs displayed a beloved pop artist exploring new musical dimensions. A terrific entertainer, Hornsby even managed to quiet a crying baby with a tinkling ditty on the piano.
The New World Symphony repeats the program 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the New World Center in Miami Beach. NWS.edu; 305-673-3331.
New World Symphony
Christian Reif, conductor
Bruce Hornsby, pianist/vocalist
Hearne: Dispatches (world premiere)…
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