Music review: ASO in Troy highlights its mentor

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who is the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s mentor-comp

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who is the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s mentor-composer this season, chose the program for Saturday night’s concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Music director David Alan Miller told the capacity crowd that the evening would be a window into Kernis’ world and musical tastes. The program also featured the world premiere of Kathryn Salfelder, one of Kernis’ graduate students at Yale.

The music Kernis chose was quite diverse. The evening started with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, which inspired his “Concerto with Echoes” (2007). Six string players and a harpsichordist were a bit unsure in the Bach, which, unless they avidly explore chamber music, was a new context for them. Pitch was a bit unsettled, but they did achieve a fairly good balance.

The concerto has Bach’s typically interweaving, pretty and dovetailing lines, most of them in close harmony. The musicians played with a good bounce but the reading was more static than emotional.

Of the three movements of Kernis’ Concerto for a chamber-size orchestra, the inner slow movement was the most lustrous with long lines of yearning, foreboding colors and romantic leanings. Vibes and a gong added unusual color. The other two movements were more subdued with soft string tremolos, lighter textures and a melancholy mood.

Kernis’ arrangement of five of Debussy’s piano etudes (1966) were the other end of the spectrum and completely wonderful. They were very French in flavor, lightness and scale. Kernis was a master colorist with a palette right out of Ravel, Debussy and even a hint of Gershwin with his use of the brass.

Kernis showed off in style from a lush, flashy cleverness in the first two etudes; a puckish and brassy brightness in the third; long, elegant lines in the fourth; and, fast, unpredictable rhythms and motifs, swells of sound and fluttery asides in the fifth to end in a splash. It was all very cool.

More great stuff was ahead in Salfelder’s “Lux Perpetua” for soprano saxophone. Tim McAllister was the star soloist. His tone was golden and sunny, perfect for the piece, which was about the qualities of light. His fingerwork was superb and his control of his instrument’s reputed difficulties was supreme — even to the multiphonics.

Salfelder showed an excellent grasp of colors and intent with great lyricism, continuity, idea development and sense of style.

To top the evening off, the orchestra, which had sounded terrific all evening, finished with a bubbly, brisk and very polished reading of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”). Miller kept it light as air with excellent pacing.

The concert is repeated this afternoon at Zankel Music Center.

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