Nu Deco Ensemble closes season with eclectic stew

By Lawrence Budmen

Andy Akiho's music was spotlighted in the Nu Deco Ensemble program Friday night at The Light Box.

Andy Akiho’s music was spotlighted in the Nu Deco Ensemble program Friday night at The Light Box.

The final program of the Nu Deco Ensemble’s first full season drew a full house at The Light Box in Miami’s trendy Wynwood arts district. In just one year since its debut performance, this contemporary music orchestra has forged a strong relationship with a predominantly youthful audience.

To be sure, some of that is due to the pop artists the group has featured at its concerts. Still conductor Jacomo Bairos and co-artistic director Sam Hyken have programmed numerous contemporary instrumental works and their loyal public has reacted enthusiastically, whether the composer was Hindemith or Marcos Balter.

This weekend’s program featured a gifted composer and percussionist and a Latin pop songstress. Bairos opened with Velocity Festivals by Paul Dooley. A busy musical appetizer, the score bustles with short thematic fragments before breaking into a surging melody. A large role for percussion dominates the instrumental writing which displayed each section of the orchestra to strong effect. Bairos led a high-octane performance.

Composer Andy Akiho is a virtuoso on steel-pan percussion. His compositions straddle the line between jazz, pop and classical genres with a more effective crossover style than many others. Akiho’s Hada Ino (Beige) opens with a melodic  theme on steel drum that could have come right out of the dance music in West Side Story before spinning out into harmonics that suggest the work of European modernist composers. With strings, flute, electric bass and extra percussion backing Akiho’s solo turn, the score’s beat proved intoxicating.

Written between 2003 and 2007, to wALK Or ruN in wEst harlem is one of Akiho’s earliest works. Akiho has one violin retune to a different pitch from the ensemble, the pianist plays inside the instrument, and rubber bands are placed over a vibraphone. The resulting vignette is a mashup of contemporary classical  styles. While the keyboard plays repetitive minimalist strokes, mallet percussion tap out Latin rhythms and the retuned violin assays figurations that fall somewhere between neo-Baroque and minimalism. The result is ear catching without overstaying its welcome.

Akiho noted that he wrote one third of the rAys end on a plane to Miami in 2008. The chamber piece is scored for the unusual combination of steel pan, violin and trumpet. With Akiho’s drum pounding out Caribbean rhythmic patterns, the violin pursues a modern jazz mode and the trumpet veers somewhere between blues and classical fanfare in an immensely likeable musical stew. Violinist Karen Lord Powell  and trumpeter Craig Morris matched Akiho for sheer speed and precision.

Akiho’s NO one To KNOW featured soprano Kimberly Soby singing the kind of broken vocal lines beloved by the Darmstadt school of avant garde composers. At times her amplified voice speaks in rhythm or repeats one note innumerable times. Throughout the work, the percussion maintains a steadfast beat before speeding the pulse ever faster at the conclusion. Soby splendidly commanded the intricate vocal writing and the work displayed Akiho’s adventurous compositional palette. For the most part, his experiment is entertaining.

Following intermission Bairos and the orchestra were joined by singer-songwriter Raquel Sofia, a University of Miami alum and Latin Grammy nominee. It was easy to see why this youthful vocalist has received such acclaim. Combining Latin folk and flamenco sounds with a pop sensibility, Sofia’s alternate belting and sultry singing and guitar playing was gutsy and distinctive. Some of the melodies in her four-song set were memorable in the classic Latin tradition. Hyken’s orchestral arrangements were outstanding, definitely enhancing Sofia’s performance.

Jamiroquai Suite is another of Hyken’s orchestral translations of popular rock bands’ music. Hyken’s quirky arrangements manage to avoid the elevator music character of some symphonic pop retoolings. The work of Jamiroquai is better suited to this type of orchestration than that of Radiohead which Hyken recently arranged. Daniel Velasco’s terrifically agile flute solo stood out in a rousing ensemble reading.

Hyken announced that next season, Nu Deco will present four concerts (one more than this year) at the Light Box with three performances of each program. There will also be performances at the New World Center and, possibly, a concluding evening at the Arsht Center. As the group spreads its offering across Miami’s high0profile venues, hopefully its repertoire will continue to expand to include major contemporary chamber orchestra scores as well as music by emerging artists.

The Nu Deco Ensemble repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Light Box, 404 NW 26 Street in Miami. The performance is sold out but there may be some returned tickets. See website to sign up for waiting list.

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Sat Apr 30, 2016
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