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The Orchestra Now Travels to Outer Space

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Dec 15th, 2017

JoAnn Falletta with The Orchestra Now

At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall last Thursday evening, The Orchestra Now launched their symphonic thrusting capabilities with enough energetic fuel that they managed to travel to Neptune. Yet I can’t enlarge the ending before beginning with their more earthly commencement under the enthusiastic baton of Guest Conductor JoAnn Falletta, who has been the Guest Conductor of over a hundred different orchestras.

Their opening ice-breaker was Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) by John Adams. According to Adams’ autobiography Hallelujah Junction (2008), this jazzy and brassy short composition was inspired by the “overwhelming emotional and acoustical experience” of hearing the brassy jabs and bullets of Duke Ellington’s band up close to the stage. This is a delightfully orchestrated brief fanfare that the Orchestra reveled in playing. In 1997 this piece was to conclude the BBC Proms festival, but it was scrubbed because of the demise/assassination of Princess Diana. Yet here—amid below-freezing weather—it was a wonderful way to warm up.

They next performed Krzysztof Penderecki’s Double Concerto (2012), which was originally written for violin and viola; its première was a radio broadcast and there is no recording of the work; this was its NYC première. Cellist Roman Mekinulov, principal cellist of the North Carolina Symphony, led with a mellow meditation. Suddenly, Dennis Kim, concert master of several world orchestras who made his BBC Proms debut in 2014, joined in the conversation, yet became disputative and even disagreeable to the cello’s manner of playing. The orchestra appeared to respond to this argument as a manipulated audience, a faux chorus.  

As the contest between cello and violin progressed, the insistent, self-righteous violin became harsh, dictatorial. The mellow objections of the cello eventually gave way to anger. This was rich dramatic music, yet it appeared like political allegory. The violin sounded like Army General Wojciech Jaruzelski while the cello sounded like Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. The wishy-washy mob orchestra eventually sided with the latter, yet they were still unsure. The sad cello had the last word on this sad situation. The virtuoso competition was thrilling and the audience demanded three bows. They re-emerged on stage to play a fierce, mesmerizing encore: Passacaglia by Handel, arr. Halvorsen.

After intermission we were ready to leave earthly argument in favor of space exploration with Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1914-16). Fortunately or unfortunately, this exploration began with Mars, the god of war where the trumpets and drums rumbled like bursting volcanoes. You have probably heard snippets from this movement in at least a dozen movies but especially in Star Wars. Holst had been amusingly introduced by Kelly Mozeik who declared The Planets to be one of her favorite symphonies and "that as a oboe player (playing for a dozen years) she was delighted to perform in a piece that had a rare role for a bass oboe, an instrument she did not have the chance to perform on.” And she played extremely well!

We were slung to Venus who calmed Mars, yet I did not discover any hint of eroticism in the domestication of Mars. Tiny Mercury was as quick and brief as his name. Jupiter had far more Spirit and Majesty, while Old Saturn brimmed with Falstaffian jollity burnished with wisdom. Uranus was a conundrum mystery where the flutes came to life, while Neptune rang with the Otherworldly mythology of happy Elysium. What makes this symphony so popular remains the lively, insistent rhythms Holst extracted from British folk music. (Same rhythmic reason Beethoven’s Fifth is a perennial favorite with the public.) And it was these identifiable rhythms that the TŌN (tone) Orchestra latched on to as they welded together for that BIG orchestral sound that swells with unified dynamics under the direction of an excellent conductor like JoAnn Falletta, who coaxed the students to perform above their level. The audience demanded three bows: it was obvious that some of the audience had not yet returned to earth.