American Music Festival shows future of classical in capable, inventive hands

Event featured 5 world premieres Friday, another 2 on Saturday
Saad Haddad channeled his Arabic roots in “Luaishya."
Saad Haddad channeled his Arabic roots in “Luaishya."

TROY – As David Alan Miller, the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s music director, told the huge crowd Saturday night at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, the five-day American Music Festival was “my idea of heaven.”

For contemporary music enthusiasts, it was indeed, as they heard not only two world premieres on Saturday, but five others on Friday night with the 18-piece Dogs of Desire. All of them were — if not at least interesting — exciting adventures. Through every piece, the ASO performed brilliantly with a real sensibility for what these composers, most of them under 35, were trying to say. It was a comfortable reminder that the future of classical music is in capable, inventive hands.

Friday: The Dogs added the skills of the remarkable soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and mezzo-soprano Lucy Deghrae, who plucked tones out of the air over exceedingly wide ranges with an edgy versatility. They all performed David Biedenbender’s “Feed,” which utilized scraps of sung or spoken word against a pointillistic score and Andrew McKenna Lee’s “The Black Pool,” which mixed rock rhythms with dense classical counterpoint under singers intoning a dark fantasy.

Saad Haddad channeled his Arabic roots in “Luaishya” with pre-recorded and then live mournful sounding vocal lines that blended with individual instrumental lines. 

Viet Cuong’s theatrical and wonderfully structured three-section  “Re(new)al” featured the Sandbox Percussion quartet, which “played” tuned water glasses and compressed air containers besides snare drums, cymbals and xylophones in infectious beats against a captivating fairyland of instrumental sound. 

David Mallamud’s miniature musical comedy “Spittoonia on the Erie” was a grand, boppy, punny creation that showed off his gifts for melody and song and kept the crowd laughing. 

The Cuong and the Mallamud got resounding standing ovations.

Saturday: Reena Esmail’s Hindustani-inspired Clarinet Concerto with the estimable clarinetist Shankar Tucker, was a floral summer night with exotic perfumes coupled with a free-flowing fast movement of scales passed around from soloist to orchestra.

Katherine Balch reimagined a slow-moving river journey aboard a barge in “drift” complete with nature sounds, rock scrappings, and shimmering currents captured by ingenious instrumental effects. 

Justin Ralls’ “Tree Ride” (2013) was a beautifully textured, lush evocation of John Muir’s Yosemite that was full of color and light. Christopher Theofanidis’ Violin Concerto with the explosive violinist Chee-Yun, who dressed the part in a fiery red slinky gown, was a turbulent, propulsive work balanced only by a lullaby-like inner movement . This brought the crowd to its feet with wild applause.

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