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The Orchestra Now turns Blue at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Feb 4th, 2018

James Bagwell with The Orchestra Now

The Orchestra Now at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater this past weekend featured a lively program. Brooklyn-born Jennifer Higdon’s (b. 1962) one-movement blue cathedral led the program. This was the first time that Sosnoff Theater has ever played work written by a female composer. The composition was written in memory of her younger brother, Andre Blue Higdon, who had died of skin cancer. Cellist Alana Shannon, who introduced the piece, noted that Higdon once described the atmosphere of the work as contemplating white clouds floating in the sky while looking upward from a cathedral aisle.

This memorial to Higdon’s departed brother appears to conjure the happier memories of a shared childhood. As Higdon’s most successful work, blue cathedral has been performed by over 400 orchestras. Having heard the piece, I now understand that impressive statistic. Her brother Andrew played clarinet and so there is a lovely clarinet solo ably performed by Elias Rodriguez. Since Jennifer plays flute, there was an ethereal solo lament played with sincerity by Thomas J. Wible. There is a shimmering evanescence to blue cathedral. One can lose oneself in contemplation and reverie. The music remains emotionally accessible, while the horns evoke an Otherworldly presence. I’d love to hear blue cathedral again, which means it is a real classic, even at a short twelve-minute run. A video of blue cathedral appears below. 

But the fun was yet to come. George Gershwin’s 1928 An American in Paris is perhaps the best musical tour of a city ever composed. Recalling Paris in the mid-twenties, the composition leaps with exuberance and charm. And those were the qualities of trombonist Gabe Cruz from Oakland, CA, who introduced the work by offering a verbal cartoon of conductor James Bagwell during their rehearsals.

Bagwell and The Orchestra Now delivered an on-point, impish, delightful performance that caught the deep humor of Gershwin’s optimistic swagger. If there is a musical afterlife, it hovers in the hazy jazz-tinged rhythms of Gershwin nouveau argot. To hear such wonderful music is also to lament the early death of Gershwin at 38. Yet the presence of life’s immediate joy is what propels this postcard of postcards into the heart of anyone who hears it. This remains a peculiarly American piece of music that the students embraced with a unified zest that transcended the ordinary in life, even though it celebrates the ordinary joy of strolling around Paris, hailing a cab, hearing a snippet of jazz float out of a seedy dive. Trombonists Matt Walley and Gabe Cruz provided that jazzy edge, along with Dan Honaker on tuba.

Bassist Paul Nemeth introduced Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C. This Bach-obsessed masterpiece delves into interior emotions with Manichean drama, enlightened by Mozart-like triplets. The woodwinds and bass enact a spiritual struggle. The third, slow movement, famous for its esthetic elegance, integrates strings, oboe, and bassoon (sensitively played by Adam Romey) to such an intricate knot that when toward the end the horns swell, one can nearly swoon.

In the glorious finale all symphonic motifs are knitted into a complete tapestry. Once again the brass arrives with exultant exclamation to banish those wan strands of lingering gloom that had repeatedly occurred. Bagwell conducted with coaxing energy and the orchestra had responded in feverish unity. The happy audience demanded two bows before braving the snow and sleet awaiting their perilous drive home.