The title of the American Composers Orchestra Underground concert, "New, Wired, and Green", invites comparison with the bridal "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue". "New" was five February premieres at Carnegie Hall’s underground Zankel Hall; they were "wired" using concert electronics and computer visuals, or else ecology-directed, hence "green".
The standout, worth more hearings for its stately beauty, was Cryosphere, California composer Rand Steiger’s organic evocation of earth surfaces that have frozen water. Its imaginary icebergs form and dissolve, their giant heights suggested by crystalline triangle and marimba and their depths by rumbling low winds, brasses, clacks, and gong rolls, mysteriously (to the laity) enhanced by concert electronics.
Margaret Brouwer’s 20-minute Breakdown, described as a "sample-based hybrid opera in one act", is a powerful, surreal found-footage film collage made in collaboration with video-sound artist Kasumi and concentrating on World War II, pre- and post.(Copies of its libretto were no help in the darkened hall—a pity, that carelessness.) Manipulated mini-clips depict the kind of American fear and panic in HG Wells’s Invasion from Mars. "The machines give you the power to control the universe", the notes say; a voiceover "rises steadily in pitch, and the rhythm of his speech is definite and emphatic". (Steve Reich’s percussionist James Preiss, a particular asset in this concert, was integral to the orchestral accompaniment.) Political figures, watchers, 1960s players, commentators, and Hollywood hurtle by in an amalgam of news, horror, and sci-fi. If it’s hard to visualize, watch a clip on www.Instantencore.com/americancomposers.
Pearls,by the promising Kati Agocs, an ACO commission that she describes as "chorales with peregrinations", was pretty (as usual for her). It was artfully shaped for the 35-member ensemble, and its thoughtful, unhurried performance was led with able definition by George Manahan, New York City Opera’s music director, in his first ACP appearance here. Based on a parable from the Gospel of St Matthew about the value of selling everything to buy the best pearl, its "jeweled sonorities" include chimes and tuba plus rattles.
David Schiff’s reorchestration of his 1990 concert opener, Stomp (Relit), is a shorter, louder, but joyful-as-ever homage to James Brown, made newly relevant by the soul singer’s death two years ago.
Securing second hearings is often difficult for new works, but this concert was presented in Philadelphia two days later. The pieces are also available at that InstantEncore website. In their tech-driven newness, they all had something to say about the world around us and suggested ways of using an orchestra in the modern world.