Albany Symphony’s festival a 3-day ode to promising composers, musicians

The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s three-day American Music Festival, which starts today, is a cornucop

The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s three-day American Music Festival, which starts today, is a cornucopia of delights for anyone who loves new music, for the composers whose works will be performed — many for the first time — and for the musicians, who love the challenge of playing something different.

The man behind all this creativity is the orchestra’s music director, David Alan Miller.

“He has his ear to the ground,” said composer Ted Hearne, whose new work will be premiered Saturday. “He knows what’s going on. He’s very good about that.”

Filling the bill

The festival is a three-prong event with a couple of side ventures; all concerts will be at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. Tonight is the Festival Reading Session at which the ASO will perform new works from three composers chosen through the Composer-to-Center Stage competition.

Friday, the 18-member Dogs of Desire, which includes sopranos Alex Sweeton and Martha Cluever, will give three world premieres, two of which are collaborations with filmmakers, as well as several favorites from the Dogs’ archives.

American Music Festival

• Today: 7:30 p.m. Festival Reading Session ($9)

• Friday: 7:30 p.m. Dogs of Desire ($22)

• Friday: 10 p.m. R We Who R We ($12, includes complimentary drink)

• Saturday: 11 a.m. Empire State Youth Orchestra Percussion Ensemble ($15)

• Saturday: 7:30 p.m. Albany Symphony Orchestra ($19-$46)

WHERE: Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, RPI, Troy

MORE INFO: 694-3300;

After the concert, the R We Who R We duo of Hearne on voice and vocal processing and Philip White using mixer feedback and electronics will give a kind of club date. Hearne said the sound is a mix of Girl Talk’s free theft collage and the raw noise of Merzbow.

“He is very hip and cool,” Miller said.

On Saturday morning, the nine-member Empire State Youth Orchestra Percussion Ensemble under Richard Albagli and Mark Foster will perform new works from composer Christopher Rouse’s composition students at the Juilliard School. These include Max Grafe’s “Night Drinker: Invocation to Xipe Totec,” Zachary Green’s “An Automaton’s Dream,” Aaron Severini’s “45 ml,” Trevor Doherty’s “Quiet Please” and Rouse’s own “Ogoun Badagris Ka-ka-ilimoku”.

Saturday night is the regular subscription concert, with the orchestra featuring pianist Orion Weiss, filling in for Emanuel Ax. The program will be Michael Torke’s “Ecstatic Orange” (1985), Kamran Ince’s “Domes” (1993), Hearne’s “Resourcery Vol. 1” and Weiss in Rouse’s “Seeing,” a concerto for piano and orchestra.

“The concerto is incredibly difficult,” Weiss said. “It’s wild, over-the-top piano writing. It’s an insane part — very dense, colorful yet thrilling.”

Rouse wrote the work on commission for Ax and the New York Philharmonic in 1998. The 30-minute work has a four-movement structure but is free form with some beautiful slow music, Weiss said. Rouse imbedded many snippets of Schumann’s “Piano Concerto,” a work Ax loves but refuses to perform because he has said he but doesn’t feel he could do justice to it.

“It’s a private in-joke,” Weiss said. “But I’d heard Mr. Ax play the Rouse a year ago and I was blown away. It was pretty exciting.”

As for filling in for Ax, his teacher at Juilliard, Weiss said: “It’s kind of an incredible honor. And now he and I are the only ones to have played this piece. Any connection with him is meaningful and special.”

Fruitful relationship

Hearne’s piece is his third for the ASO and reflects a direction he’s experimenting with.

“I take bits and pieces and put them together — to contrast and juxtapose,” he said. “But it’s not haphazard. They’re connected by key or rhythm.”

His interest in this polyglot method also carried over into his role as this year’s composer/educator. Hearne’s been working with children at Hackett Middle School in Albany to write rap songs or lay tracks on a computer. The results are for “young hipsters,” Miller said.

Dogs’ fans may remember hearing the creations of Todd Levin, David Mallamud, Ken Eberhard and Roshanne Etezady from past seasons, but everything else on Saturday’s program will be new. These include Jacob Cooper’s “Serenade” to Zach Savich’s poetry; Robert Paterson’s “Ghost Theater,” a collaboration with Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven highlighting Pablo Neruda’s poetry; and Amanda Harberg’s “Venus Unhinged,” a collaboration with New York City filmmaker Micah Fink featuring the poetry of Eliza Griswold and Margaret Atwood.

The mixed media idea was Miller’s, Fink said.

“This is new territory for me. I’ve never worked with classical music before or this subject matter,” he said.

Fink, who has received Emmy nominations and several awards, specializes in international affairs, public health and environmental issues. While he had to come up with visual ways to evoke rather than illustrate the words that illuminate Harberg’s music, Harberg was devising unorthodox ways to set Griswold’s lines about the myths of love to music for a chamber-size ensemble.

“Usually I write for orchestras,” Harberg said. “This is the first time I’ve written for a group like the Dogs.”

It helped that the mission of Miller and the Dogs is to push the musical envelope, Fink said.

“It gave us the freedom to do something we’ve never done,” he said.

New voices

This is the fourth year the Reading Session has been held. One hundred composers sent in pieces, some with MIDI mockups. Those chosen have their piece rehearsed, performed and then critiqued. Miller first winnowed down all the scores to about 12. Then he passed these to his resident composers, who whittled them down to three. His criteria were specific: how interesting is the composer’s voice, how would hearing the work benefit the composer and would the composer warrant a hearing. The writing must not be too simple, too polished or require large numbers.

“I want emerging composers who are just entering the professional arena,” Miller said. “Many have never heard their pieces played by an orchestra.”

The three who made the cut are all in graduate school and have written very elegantly crafted pieces, he said. They are Brian Petuch’s “Simple Objects,” Katherine Balch’s “Twin Compasses,” and William Gardiner’s “Arion.”

Hearne spoke for all composers when he said the second performance will be the hardest to get.

“Momentum comes slowly. You can only hope,” he said.

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