The Albany Symphony Orchestra under music director David Alan Miller was in rare form Friday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Perhaps the orchestra was psyched about its upcoming Carnegie Hall debut May 10 as part of the Spring for Music festival. Or more prosaically, maybe it was the program itself, which featured baritone Nathan De’shon Myers, who was riveting.
It’s not unusual to hear a few contemporary pieces on an ASO program, but all the pieces were by Americans, and except for the work by Aaron Copland, they were by living composers. Besides George Tsontakis, who is the ASO’s Music Alive Composer-in-Residence this season, John Harbison, Donal Fox, Bun Ching Lam, Tania Leon, Daniel Roumain, Kevin Beavers, Richard Adams and Stephen Dankner were part of the Spirituals Project in which each took a spiritual and created something symphonic, over which Myers sang.
Tsontakis told the capacity crowd that he worked in 30 Appalachian fiddle tunes and set them within a Civil War period for “Let the River Be Unbroken” (1994). A fiddler in appropriate garb (a nice touch) began the piece from the back of the hall and walked down the aisle playing a tune, which was picked up by various orchestral sections. Over the next 14 minutes, edges were blurred as the music mixed and melded the tunes together along with colorful and upbeat asides and big, lyrical gestures. The inner section denoting Lincoln’s assassination was quietly evocative until the fiddler returned the way he had come.
Myers, who headlined the ASO’s Spirituals Project a few seasons back, was the perfect choice to sing these songs. His voice is plummy, rich with dark purples and deep browns, as he rolled out his wonderfully rounded phrases. He projected easily with excellent diction although Miller too often allowed the orchestra to play out.
The eight composers did well to create some interesting short works. Those that allowed space for the voice, however, worked the best. Harbison’s “Ain’t goin’ to study war no mo” was catchy, jazz inflected and very upbeat. Fox’s “Hear de’ Lams A-cryin” was beautiful with giant footsteps treading ominously, interesting dangling, repeated melodic motifs, which were like streamers, were set in an overall dark, foreboding drama. Myers delivered with a smooth passion.
Leon’s “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” followed the spiritual’s line with gently undulating colors. Dankner’s “Wade in de’ Water” was a bit too symphonic, but its heavy New Orleans-style jazz and Myers full-voice exclamations electrified. Adam’s “Stan’ Still, Jordan” was evocative; Lam’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” was highly abstract and dissonant but Myers’ passion saved the day. Roumain’s “Harvest” was more instrumental than a support for the vocal line but was well orchestrated. and Beavers’ “Deep River” tended to draw attention away from the gorgeous words.
The crowd couldn’t get enough, so Miller allowed an encore: Tsontakis’ charming, light and perfectly conceived “Gospel Train Arrivin.” Every Myers word could be heard and understood.
The orchestra sounded luminous in Copland’s Pulitzer Prize winning score to the ballet “Appalachian Spring.”