Soprano Plitmann gives sterling advocacy to Daugherty song cycle at Festival Miami

By Lawrence Budmen

Soprano Hila Plitmann and the Frost Wind Ensemble  gave the local premiere of Michael Daugherty's song cycle "Labyrinth of Love" Sunday night at Festival Miami.

Hila Plitmann and the Frost Wind Ensemble gave the local premiere of Michael Daugherty’s song cycle “Labyrinth of Love” Sunday night at Festival Miami.

Gary Green’s concerts with the  Frost Wind Ensemble are  always invigorating experiences. His command and skill in the wind band repertoire and enthusiasm for contemporary music make his performances real events for adventurous listeners.

For his Festival Miami program on Sunday afternoon at UM Gusman Concert Hall, Green led a compelling new song cycle and a transcription of a familiar classic.

Michael Daugherty has made a reputation as a composer of works with pop cultural themes and references. He has created scores celebrating Superman, Elvis and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. (His opera Jackie O will be presented by the UM Frost Opera Theater in April, 2014.) He studied composition with such icons of the avant garde and high modernism as Charles Wuorinen, Betsy Jolas, Mario Davidovsky and Jacob Druckman.

Daugherty’s song cycle Labyrinth of Love was a joint commission from Milwaukee’s Present Music, London’s Rambert Dance Company and the UM Frost School of Music. The work is a setting of eight poems, ranging from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s grief of rejected love to Elizabeth Taylor’s ruminations on her love-hate relationship with Richard Burton. Sappho, Emily Dickinson and Mary Shelley make appearances along the way. This performance marked the premiere of the wind ensemble version of the orchestral score.

Bitterness and despair mix with ecstasy and irony in Daugherty’s chosen texts and his musical settings span an equally wide range. Atonality, Bergian arioso, minimalism, jazz and musical theater effortlessly interface in this post-modern stew.

Despite its populist elements, the score is not easy listening. In what may be his finest work to date, Daugherty has created a soprano part replete with wide leaps and intervals, near whispers and shouts and constant turmoil. His ensemble writing is equally imaginative, mirroring the soprano’s emotional roller coaster. The score requires a singing actress of formidable gifts with ease of projection in the voice’s upper and lower extremes.

Hila Plitmann, a London-based contemporary music specialist (and wife of composer Eric Whitacre), was a mesmerizing protagonist, displaying clear diction while wandering the stage, at once frenzied and sad. Her upper register gleamed, bereft of strain, and chest tones exuded glamour. Plitmann evoked Eros and she bent phrases with a touch of soft scat-singing for Shelley’s dream.

Her stunning performance was matched by the ensemble. Whether churning out repetitive motifs, projecting brass and percussive outbursts or quietly suggesting sadness, Green’s players superbly executed Daugherty’s demanding writing. Plitmann, Green and Daugherty received a prolonged standing ovation.

There is a long tradition of transcribing Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition for larger forces. While Ravel’s orchestration has become a repertoire staple, such legendary musicians as Sir Henry Wood, Leopold Stokowski and Vladimir Ashkenazy have created orchestral editions.

Prior to his performance, Green described band arranger Merlin Patterson’s version as “widescreen Technicolor.” That may well have been an understatement. Scored for massive winds and brass with  large percussion battery plus double bass, harp and organ, Patterson’s version plays at extremes of volume and color.

From the massed trumpets in the opening “Promenade” theme to the multiple chimes, mallet percussion and organ of the final “Great Gate at Kiev,” the scoring is a whirlwind of sonorities. Combining the Frost Wind Ensemble and Frost Symphonic Winds, Green led a taut, eloquent reading of this thrice-familiar music made new again. The program was a display of Green’s indispensable contribution to the school of music.

Festival Miami presents the Frost Chamber Players 8 p.m. October 15 at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. The program features works by Reinecke, Ravel and Beethoven. 305-284-4940;

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Mon Oct 7, 2013
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