North Carolina Symphony’s “Appalachian Spring”
Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh
Friday, April 24, 2015
In a preconcert conversation on Friday night, North Carolina Symphony Music Director Grant Llewellyn talked about discovering the term “indie classical” as he prepared music by Judd Greenstein and Sarah Kirkland Snider for the night’s concert. At first, he wasn’t sure what to make of it, thinking it might be lightweight and faddish.
But the music of Greenstein and Snider made him realize they were composers of depth with plenty of interesting things to say. While I find the term “indie classical” troubling for reasons of my own, I do agree with his assessment of Snider and Greenstein: Their music, performed by the North Carolina Symphony as part of a concert featuring American composers, left me wanting more.
The program’s first half featured orchestrations of smaller works. Aaron Copland’s 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring, subject of most of the publicity for the show, was originally scored for 13 players. While the composer’s orchestration from 1945 never quite achieves the clarity of the original, the Symphony’s performance struck a good balance between the clarity of the chamber ensemble and the oomph of the orchestra. The seemingly omnipresent muscle of the brass section countered the transparent winds and strings, most apparent during the laid-back country dance.
A world premiere orchestration of Greenstein’s 2009 piece Change, originally written for the NOW Ensemble, followed. The work builds around intricate, interlocking rhythms, with a twitchy flute melody and agile textures that seem easy for a five-piece ensemble to execute. The challenge, then, is trying to fight the inertia of a 65-piece orchestra, which Greenstein did with aplomb. The first five minutes or so provided a gradual revving of the orchestral engine, warming up different sections with a burbling melody. Once it got going, though, Greenstein built a series of completely irresistible grooves, each more catchy than the last. It was impossible to miss Copland’s sense of harmony and orchestration within the DNA of Greenstein’s music, even if their surfaces could barely be more different. Greenstein will return to Raleigh in May 2016 with a new work co-commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony.
After intermission, singer Shara Worden (who records under the moniker My Brightest Diamond) and a trio of local singers joined the symphony for three songs from Snider’s song cycle Unremembered. A setting of 13 poems by Nathaniel Bellows, Unremembered is a series of disconnected childhood memories told with the same grotesque naïveté of the Brothers Grimm—the author’s sister sleepwalking into the snowy night, the gruesome death of a swan, the time the author saw a witch while sitting at a campfire. Each tale is more unsettling than the last.
Snider’s settings were as wonderfully varied as the tales, with a musical vocabulary rooted in Björk, Steve Reich and David Lang. While I very much enjoyed the neo-medieval polyphony of “The Guest” and Vespertine-like glassiness of “The Swan,” it was the third song, “The Witch,” that stole the show. The song feels like a glimpse into an entirely new sound world, melding the sneaky bass lines and rhythms of a My Brightest Diamond number with the unsettling orchestral interjections of Thomas Adès and some kind of obliquely driving rock. It was the perfect showcase for Worden, who acted the words as much as she sang them, contorting her body to match the ebbs and flows of the music. The song ended far too soon, and I wanted to spend more time exploring its possibilities. All the more reason, I suppose, to look forward to the new work of hers the NCS will premiere in September.
The concert closed with a pair of pieces by Samuel Barber. The Adagio for Strings seemed like an odd follow-up, its earnestness out of place after Snider’s ambiguity. While the symphony did a fine job with it, I felt jarred by its presence. At least his Essay No. 2 offered a nicely meaty way to end the program, packing power into its 10 minutes.
Next year, the North Carolina Symphony will continue to mix new works with careful selections from the canon. Friday’s program offered a sign of things to come. If those performances are as exciting as this one was, we’ll be in for a good symphony season.