Friday night’s New Worlds concert by the Lexington Philharmonic focused decidedly on the word “new,” as it presented a world premiere, an American debut, and still more innovative programming by music director Scott Terrell.
The first half of the concert at the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts featured works by the Saykaly Garbulinska Composer-in-Residence Avner Dorman, opening with the world premiere performance of his After Brahms, commissioned by the Philharmonic. The title has more than one meaning: Obviously, it’s written in a contemporary idiom, but it’s also written after the style of Johannes Brahms in several ways.
The first movement uses the accompaniment of Brahms’ Intermezzo, opus 118, number 1— but a clashing new theme in the brass overpowers it. The second movement quotes from the first opus 119 Intermezzo, but it soon evolves into its own melody (Michael Acord shines in a solo for Brahms’ beloved clarinet), amid a tonal landscape permeated with exquisite dissonances hanging in the air and delicately resolving. Finally, the third movement, though containing no actual music by Brahms, fully embraces the spirit of the older composer. The harmony still holds many modern elements, but they sound lush and elegant, played with great warmth by the Philharmonic strings.
After Brahms, then, can take on yet another more personal and local meaning. The music of Brahms has been a specialty of the Lexington Philharmonic, and with this music, Maestro Terrell shows us where the group has been developing during his tenure — building on the past while presenting exciting, interesting, and accessible new music for the audience.
For Dorman’s next work on the program, his percussion concerto Frozen in Time, the ensemble was joined by a stunning new talent, Italian percussionist Simone Rubino making his United States debut. Surrounded by banks of various percussion instruments, he moved from one to another (some simultaneously) with staggering virtuosity.
The piece focuses on three musical locations, yet so familiar have these influences become that the first movement, Indoafrica, already brings to mind American jazz, and the last movement, representing the brash raucousness of The Americas, sometimes sounded the most exotic. Eurasia, the quieter middle movement (with telling moments of disquiet) was again filled with Dornan’s gorgeously rich harmonies. Throughout this inclusive work, we hear gamelan music, Indian improvisation, African rhythms, Broadway, grunge, swing and so much more. The excitement generated by performer and composer spurred the audience to applaud and cheer after each movement.
The standing ovations, in fact, demanded an encore, and Rubino had one more surprise. A lone snare drum was brought onstage, and he introduced the audience to Asventuras by Alexej Gerassimez. For the next seven minutes, Rubino coaxed, cajoled, and (excuse me) beat a new world of sound out of the instrument. Beginning with clicking sticks alone, the work requires the performer to use every surface of the drum — the head, the rim, the shell — with sticks, mallet, brush, and even different parts of the hand.
The joy of Rubino’s performance, the complex rhythms, the incredible range, brought the audience to its feet yet again, and I couldn’t help but think that our applause — itself a percussion instrument — could not compare to the tour-de-force we’d just witnessed.
So how does an orchestra return after a show-stopper of that jaw-dropping magnitude? Well, it helps that Antonin Dvorak (also influenced by Brahms, by the way) never wrote a bad note in his life, and his Symphony Number 9, “From the New World” is an apt companion piece. In fact, the exuberance of the first half of the program inspired the orchestra to new heights — everything seemed to be more rousing, more spontaneous — and exciting as all get-out.
Dvorak’s fascination with American melodies is well-known, but it might be equally true that he helped to transform American music himself. Aficionados of classic Hollywood westerns could close their eyes and picture John Wayne riding through Monument Valley — by way of Bohemia. Could Dvorak be the reason our visions of the frontier are scored with Romantic orchestral music? Dvorak’s Slavic rhythms have become American.
The centerpiece of the work features Dvorak’s plaintive melody for English horn, and soloist David Powell movingly employed his talents for phrasing and control, along with a hint of rubato, to craft this into a true singing spiritual.
After the thrilling conclusion, the audience was again on its feet. The concert triumphantly showcased the talents of performers, composers, and the ability of Terrell to program works that entertain and educate, innovate with new works and revitalize the old.