Thursday night’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was unique in that it was not only an all-American program, but by sheer coincidence (rather than intention) a program of music by three important Brooklyn-born composers: Alvin Singleton, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. That the conductor, ASO Music Director Robert Spano, is a former music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic puts the icing on the cake.
The concert, which will be performed again tonight and Saturday evening, opened with the world premiere of Singleton’s “Different River,” his longest work for orchestra to date. The piece opens with a spacious statement for solo timpani, followed by a brief series of regularly spaced taps on a cowbell, then a hurried passage on marimba. Soon, a quick arpeggio on the harp articulates the beginning of long, sustained chords in strings and winds.
From these basic materials, Singleton, who now lives in Atlanta, forges a musical language from which all the ideas in the piece emerge and reappear in a variety of guises and transformations. At the end, it winds down to passages of harp alternating with busy 16th notes wafting among the strings. The cellos finally settle on a single sustained note in the overall diminuendo, and at last we quietly hear a familiar, deliberate tap, tap, tap, tap on the cowbell echoing its simple statement from the beginning.
The title “Different River” is not meant to describe the piece, but as with Singleton’s other works simply identifies it. It is, however, a metaphor. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with saying, “You cannot step twice into the same river.” Singleton drew upon that for his title, though it also reflects the composer’s penchant for avoiding cliché expectations in how his music develops.
Spano and the orchestra performed “Different River” engagingly, and it held attention throughout its shifting, often surprising but well-landmarked sonic landscape.
Pianist Leon Bates made his Atlanta Symphony debut in 1975 playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” substituting in that concert for André Watts. Bates was again called upon to play the popular “Rhapsody” when it became clear that the original plan for this concert, for a new piano concerto by jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, to be played by Roberts himself, was not going to be completed in time.
When I heard Bates perform “Rhapsody” with the ASO in 1975, it was a much more straightforward performance. This many years later, Bates has made the piece his own. Aside from his embellished departures from the written part in sections for solo piano alone, he took very personal turns with some phrases; particularly odd were those in which he choked the final note, clipping it short, as it were, to the skin.
Nevertheless, the performance, from both pianist and orchestra, was lively and hardly out of scope. “Rhapsody in Blue” has over time suffered performances that ranged from stodgy by-the-note renderings to inexplicably misguided aberrations. The thing is, Gershwin was fighting to be taken very seriously as a composer, like European modernists he greatly admired such as Alban Berg. By contrast, many orchestras today use his “Rhapsody” for the opposite: to attract the public at large by proving themselves not so serious as was thought. The reality lies somewhere in the middle: serious music can be fun too. This performance reflected that.
Like “Different River,” Copland’s Symphony No. 3 is the composer’s longest work for orchestra, clocking in at about 40 minutes. It was his final symphony, composed at the end of Word War II. Written in a musical language similar to his popular ballet scores, it harks back to an America that America today seems to have nearly forgotten.
Expansive and heroic throughout with its open, equivocal harmonies, Copland’s symphony is a watershed in terms of a shift from European dominance of the form. Spano and the ASO played it with both dignity and all flags waving, and it is quite possible that the brass section — which was asked to stand for special recognition during the ovation at the end — has never before played with such volume in that space. It was good to hear Copland’s music played with expressive honesty.