ISO plays new works to a small house 

Two young composers featured in orchestra's 10th classical program

click to enlarge Guest Conductor Edwin Outwater
  • Guest Conductor Edwin Outwater

No better proof of repertoire choice relating to turnout was demonstrated than in Friday's only weekend ISO concert. I'd guess that the Circle Theatre was less than one-quarter filled for a single program (no weekend duplicates) featuring Sibelius and Brahms bookending two new works by Sarah Kirkland Snider, 46, and Caroline Shaw, 34, the latter a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2013. Guest conductor Edwin Outwater was joined by Shaw and soprano Shara Worden.

In keeping with all major symphony organizations' desire to expand performing repertoire with the introduction of new works, and the expected loss in attendance in programs dominated by them, it would seem prudent to fit a single contemporary piece into a program of either warhorses or "common practice" (1700 - 1930) works. This will help ensure each of these new works the greatest possible exposure. It is clearly self-defeating to inundate a program with new works if exposure is what is desired.

In Friday's program, Snider's offering came first, Three songs from her incidental music to Unremembered: 1. The Guest - 2. The Swan - 3 The Witch. These three--out of 13--recall Snider's imaginative childhood. She introduced them, as she announced from the stage, by singing Schubert's final song "Der Leiermann" from his late written cycle Die Wintereise which had inspired her, with the house and stage darkened, a spotlight trained on Worden standing on the upper stage -- and a piano accompaniment. For the three Snider songs, Worden returned to the podium, the lights returned, and she hooked herself up to an amplifying system.

What to say about her singing? Whether intentional or not, her notes blended with the orchestra's held tones such that she couldn't be clearly heard, even with amplification. Vocally Worden sings nearly "white" with an occasional trace of a light vibrato. The orchestra tended to hold sustained notes while shifting rough harmonies beneath them. In short I found myself unable to respond to these latter-day songs (while admiring the former-day Schubert).

click to enlarge Composer/violinist Caroline Shaw
  • Composer/violinist Caroline Shaw

Not so with Caroline Shaw's following ISO commissioned Lo for Violin and orchestra, with Shaw herself doing the violin solo. Though compositionally similar to the Snider songs, Shaw's use of tonal harmonies made all the difference in my response. Lo's three connected movements spun a web of continuous lines over shifting harmonies filled with common and not-so-common chords. The concerto featured a prominent use of the bass drum without timpani (rather like Paganini's first violin concerto). As any piece of new music should accomplish, this one revealed new beauties. Shaw's violin work was light as she blended with her players without much contrast.

Outwater began the program with Sibelius's piece The Oceanides, one whose modal inclinations recalled for me the composer's Sixth Symphony, but with the music more continuous in its overlapping phrases. The concert ended with Brahms' familiar Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a, the theme being the St. Anthony Chorale from a Haydn woodwind quartet now thought to have been written by one of his students. Both works received routine, uneventful performances. Feb. 19

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Tom Aldridge

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