Saturday, April 21, 2007

Gandolfi, Higdon, and inescapable grooves

As I mentioned previously, this evening's New World Symphony concert includes Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra and a world premiere of an expanded version of Michael Gandolfi's Impressions from the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. As an added treat, both composers are here in Miami Beach and will be attending the concert, as they have the rehearsals for the past few days.

I don't know if audience members realize what a very cool thing it is to have a living composer involved in preparing his or her own work. We've all applauded for that solitary figure, bounding up to the stage at the end of the concert, and maybe wondered at the incongruousness of it all - how could this little, specific person have created something so big and so universal? The more composers I meet, the more I am impressed and respectful of the challenges they face, this alchemy of transforming personal experiences into artistic creation. It's a miracle, what they are able to do, and in some ways it is the essential purpose for what we all do.

At the beginning of this week everyone in the orchestra was wondering about this Gandolfi piece. Parts of it had been performed and recorded, other parts only existed as scores and synthesized MIDI audio files, and still others apparently had only been sketched. The movement numbers suggest that the piece will be in 11 movements, but last Monday we had only seen five or six of them. Conductor Robert Spano tried to relieve some of our anxieties at the first rehearsal, telling us how fantastic those unseen movements were, and mentioning some awesome grooves and a kick-ass trumpet solo in one of them. This only made some players more nervous, of course.

In the end, we settled on a version of the piece with nine movements - one of which is a 6-movement baroque suite entitled "The Senses". So it qualifies as an expanded version, but perhaps not the complete or final version. In a way that's appropriate to the feel of this piece, which is about a philosopher's garden - since the work both philosophy and gardening are never really finished, but always in a state of growth and revision. Talking to Gandolfi during a rehearsal break, he described how he set out to write a really great groove - a somewhat elusive thing in orchestral music - and in his movement "The Willow Twist" he seems to have succeeded. That's the movement with the big trumpet solo, along with a prominent trombone solo, and both players stand up like in a big band concert. Once you've created a great groove though, he said, the challenge is to get out of it - it sort of has a self-perpetuating momentum. The solution he chose was what he calls a "bow and arrow technique" - just at its most exuberant point, it dissolves into a new, spare texture in the upper strings.

Jennifer Higdon is also around, and has had some helpful suggestions for the prominent string solos which occur in 4 of the 5 movements. The most prominent and exposed bass solo is in the 3rd movement, and Higdon seems to have been inspired by the kind of spontaneous facility you hear in Edgar Meyer's bass playing. Our principal bassist this week, James Goode, does a great job of emulating that, and all week his solos have grown more confident and incisive. The 4th movement is an extended percussion groove, sort of a cadenza for that section of the orchestra. In this case, the groove proceeds directly into the 5th movement, which begins without pause. It's another exuberantly syncopated dance for the whole orchestra, with more prominent solos and lots of Bartok pizzicatos, perhaps a tribute to the original "Concerto for Orchestra."

Both composers are well represented online. Visit Michael Gandolfi's home page and Jennifer Higdon's for lots of news, information, and sounds. Tickets are still available for tonight's concert - visit the New World Symphony website for more information.

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