Albany Symphony Orchestra audiences are used to hearing programs of new music sprinkled with some of the repertoire’s favorite masterpieces. This weekend is no different. They’ll hear two world premieres along with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) and music director David Alan Miller’s unusual choice of Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds.
The connection between the two new works is composer Joan Tower, who is this season’s mentor composer.
“Joan was my primary composition teacher,” said Conor Brown, whose new piece “Bablook: Planet of Hands” will be played. “I also knew David from when he conducted my clarinet concerto in 2011 at a workshop at Bard College.”
Bard College is where Tower has taught since 1972, and Brown graduated from there in 2011.
“Joan’s fantastic at having each student find their own voice,” Brown said. “She helps you to find what you want to be saying, so all her students at Bard have different voices.”
Albany Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 Second St. Troy
HOW MUCH: $59-$19
MORE INFO: 694-3300; www.albanysymphony.com
Not to be outdone by her own methods, Tower decided to take one of her old piano with orchestra pieces called “Rapids” (1996) and compose a new section called “Still.” Pianist Blair McMillen will perform.
“I’ve played a lot of Joan’s pieces, but these are diametrically opposed,” McMillen said, who also teaches at Bard. “The language of the chords is different. Those now are like Bill Evans’ jazz harmonies that are based on a perfect fourth. The melodic figures are also quite different.”
McMillen did not work with Tower on the piece, although she did dedicate the new section to him. The “Rapids” section was dedicated to pianist Ursula Oppens, who premiered it in 1996.
“That’s what I love about her. She’s so self-reliant with her own ideas,” McMillen said. “She locks the door to her studio, turns off her phone and works until she has something.”
“Rapids” has fast scales and arpeggios that are similar to running a river over Niagara Falls, while the new slow “Still” is a barren, quiet landscape, he said. McMillen may be an old hand with new music with hundreds of premieres under his belt with such organizations as the American Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the American Modern Ensemble, but Tower’s piece is challenging.
“One part is like being in a blender for 13 minutes, the other is very sparse, softly held, static,” he said. “It’s a complete package I have to prepare. I’m practicing my scales like crazy, yet it will be hard to play very quiet.”
Brown, however, was looking to create an almost cinematic experience.
“My goal for the piece was to take the audience on a journey, an adventure,” he said. “I’m using the full range of instruments and all their colors to describe landscapes, or another planet. It’s a little programmatic.”
To create the 11-minute piece, he used his computer, recorded himself playing clarinet for multi-tracks and even singing.
“I let the ideas just happen,” Brown said.
This, his second piece for orchestra, ended up having beautiful otherworldly moments, overdramatic passages and even some humor. The title “Bablook” is a word that just “popped into my head, but fit the feel of the piece,” he said.
Brown, who will be at the performances, is emotional about the coming premiere.
“It’s very nerve-wracking to hear my stuff live,” he said. “Computers do a poor job creating the sound, so there are always surprises. You always wonder what the piece is really going to sound like.”
McMillen has other thoughts.
“You never know when a piece will have legs,” he said. “Some that I’ve thought wouldn’t see the light of day have many performances, while others that I thought were beautifully crafted never do. But recently I heard a competition winner win with ‘Rapids,’ so that’s a good sign.”
To make sure that Towers’ piece might have a legacy, Miller and the ASO will be recording the work live this weekend for a disc of Towers music on the Naxos label.
As for the other two works on the program, Beethoven’s symphony premiered in 1805 and is one of his most lyrical. Stravinsky’s Octet, which premiered in 1923 with Stravinsky conducting, represents one of the composer’s constant explorations into other styles. The sound medium he chose for this three movement work for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, and two trombones is tonal but their interweaving contrapuntal lines rarely seem to connect.
Miller will explain it all at noon Friday at the Albany Public Library at 161 Washington Ave. in the ASO’s Free Lunchtime Music Series. He will also speak one hour prior to each of the concerts at the Rensselaer County Historical Society at 57 Second Street.