The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented “A King Remembrance Concert” on Thursday evening, commemorating the 45th anniversary of the death of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. ASO Music Director Robert Spano led the orchestra in music by Commodore Primous III, Michael Kurth, Leonard Bernstein, Marcus Roberts and Christopher Theofanidis. The orchestra will perform the concert again tonight in Symphony Hall, then once more (sans the work by Primous) on Saturday afternoon at the Johnny Mercer Theater in Savannah as part of the Savannah Music Festival.
Former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, once an aide to King, introduced the concert with a heartfelt personal tribute to him. He spoke of King’s impact and aspirations for an integrated society, and his own similar aspirations for Atlanta’s cultural and artistic community.
The music began with a short work by 14-year-old Commodore Primous III, a freshman in Pebblebrook High School’s performing arts magnet program in Mableton. He wrote a short piano piece, “Lullaby,” last year and won a contest for young composers sponsored by the ASO. The prize was having his composition performed by the orchestra.
The ASO engaged one of its contrabassists, Michael Kurth, to mentor Commodore in the process of orchestrating and otherwise transforming the music into a symphonic work. As a result, the character of the piece developed so that he gave it a new title, “The Triumph of Day,” and the three-minute composition has to date been performed by the ASO for more than 25,000 schoolchildren.
In addition to being an ASO contrabassist, Kurth has become a rising star among Atlanta composers, known for accessible chamber works with funky titles. His first orchestral work for the ASO was a three-minute fanfare titled “May Cause Dizziness,” which it premiered in 2011. The world premiere Thursday night, called “Everything Lasts Forever,” also displays Kurth’s penchant for the offbeat and interesting.
The title comes from street art — graffiti — on the Krog Street Bridge, a painted frieze above the underpass that connects Inman Park to Cabbagetown. Some of the expressive, if often illegal, street art he saw while driving past the bridge became inspirations for the music.
If one has heard only Kurth’s chamber music, “Everything Lasts Forever” is an ear and mind opener. It proved a genuine highlight of the concert. The opening movement, “Toes,” is named after one street artist’s signature. It begins with low punctuated notes that could be called “stomping” sounds, then slowly develops rhythmic drive, moves to a climax, then drops down to a sneaky level with a simple melody played in unison with oboe and trumpet. It then rises back to an ending that depicts, in the words of the composer, “the dark and glorious victory of the cartoon feet” in the art of Mr. Toes.
The second movement, “Bird Sing Love,” is stunning, starting off with celesta and adding orchestral colors in gentle rendering like a music box. The final movement, “We Have All the Time in the World,” stretches a simple melody over an awkward 7/8 meter, but it also reveals that Kurth knows what Mahler knew about orchestration: you don’t have to use all the orchestra all the time. You can also make chamber music within. Bravo to Kurth. “Everything Lasts Forever” is evidence that he should be writing more orchestral music.
Just as Kurth’s piece was inspired by street art of the transitional neighborhood around the Krog Street Bridge, the musical “West Side Story” was set in mid-1950s Manhattan, an ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood targeted for urban renewal at the time. Ironically, part the movie version was shot in the very neighborhood cleared away to make room for Lincoln Center shortly thereafter.
In 1961, Leonard Bernstein collected his music for “West Side Story” into a set of “Symphonic Dances” for concert performance. It has since become a mainstay of the American orchestral repertoire, smoothly incorporating jazz and Latin idioms into an often white-hot score that reflects Manhattan’s anxious, transformative urban landscape of that era. Spano is right at home with Bernstein’s score, and the orchestra responded with a compelling performance.
While Spano’s take on the “Mambo” may not have the full Latin fire of Gustavo Dudamel, it was fully engaged. He took a pace on “Cool” that kept the tension while holding the reins on sheer tempo. It built up to a Kentonian “big band” climax that set the stage for the “rumble” music that took an adaptation of the fugal theme into the threatening dramatic consequences, followed by the work’s pensive conclusion.
“West Side Story” made its debut two years after publication of a controversial book by music critic Henry Pleasants in 1955, The Agony of Modern Music, in which he argued that the lineage of European classical music was “dead” and that jazz was the one true expression. That book and “West Side Story” are from an era when jazz and its relationship to “high arts” was still a conundrum in the ears of average symphony patrons, who were still shocked by the music of Stravinsky and Bartok and were mostly unaware of the emergent postwar avant garde. But it was also an era when adventurous, front-edge explorations of the possibilities of jazz were taking root.
I will reiterate a sentiment from my review of last week’s ASO concert: the question of merging jazz and classical music in the symphonic concert hall is a rather dated battle. It is true, however, that how it is done will determine whether you get an actual amalgamation, as Bernstein successfully did with both jazz and Latin idioms, or an untenable chimera.
The latter was the case with the world premiere of Roberts’ “Spirit of the Blues” Piano Concerto in C minor. Just as Benedikt Brydern’s “Double Identity,” performed last week, was self-consciously rife with jazz clichés of style, so Roberts’ concerto is curiously full of “classical” clichés — very old-fashioned ones for the most part, and in what seemed a wildly rhetorical way. That despite the composer’s statement that his primary symphonic muses for each of the three movements were Beethoven, Ravel and Bartok, respectively.
Roberts seems at his best when playing unaccompanied or with the other members of his trio: drummer Jason Marsalis (brother of Wynton, Branford and Delfeayo) and bassist Rodney Jordan, who spent part of his earlier professional career in Atlanta performing and teaching.
The concert concluded with the luminous “Rainbow Body” by Theofanidis, one of Spano’s “Atlanta School” of composers. Over the past dozen years, it has become a signature work for the orchestra and Spano. Theofanidis’ orchestration offered stark contrast to the rather opaque orchestration of Roberts’ concerto, like clearing the air after a drizzly, overcast day.