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Orchestra 2001 considers Bali (2nd review)BY: Steve Cohen 05.01.2012
Orchestra 2001’s recent Balinese music and dance program combined flash with substance, and crowd appeal with enlightenment— a rare achievement.
Orchestra 2001: Boulez, Derive 1; Levinson, Black Magic/White Magic; Lotring, Tabuh Solo, Rejang Dewa; Suadin, Bangau Raja; Whitman, Inside/Outside. James Freeman conductor; Freda Herseth, mezzo-soprano; Indonesian Cultural Club Dancers; Gamelan Semara Santi of Swarthmore College, Thomas Whitman, co-director. April 21, 2012 at Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square. (267) 687-6243 or www.orchestra2001.org.
Flash and substance, by way of BaliSTEVE COHEN
Orchestra 2001’s recent concert at the Ethical Society and Swarthmore combined flash with substance, and crowd appeal with enlightenment— a rare achievement.
Had it merely presented an exotic gamelan band with colorful Balinese dancers, that would have sufficed. Yet the program went far beyond that.
The gamelan has attracted and influenced western composers from Claude Debussy through Colin McPhee, Lou Harrison and Olivier Messaien all the way to Gerald Levinson and Thomas Whitman. This program included music by the latter two Philadelphia-based composers and found ties between the pieces.
The program opened with a short composition by Pierre Boulez. Many people dislike the sound of “modern” music in general and in particular they dislike Boulez, who is one of the genre’s leading exponents. Even some knowledgeable critics, like BSR’s Tom Purdom, share that distaste. But beyond mere distaste, many listeners complain that they don’t understand what such music is trying to say.
Boulez answered such cavils in 1984 when he wrote Derive 1, derived from a six-note chord played at the start— a chord that was based on the six letters of the name of Paul Sacher, the Swiss conductor. Boulez’s composition is for six instruments and lasts approximately six minutes. So his logic is clear. You can’t say that you don’t understand what he’s trying to do.
Whether or not you love its sound is a matter of personal taste. I for one find it soothingly exotic, with cascading trills and arpeggios, very colorful in pastel hues. To the normal chamber instruments, the score adds a vibraphone. Like gamelan music, Derive 1 creates textures that produce a hypnotic effect.
Levinson wrote his Black Magic/White Magic in Bali in 1981. It’s a song cycle based on short poems by his wife, Nanine Valen, suggesting tropical nature. The lyrics enjoy a virtue of sounding poetic yet not obscure in their references to greenery, hummingbird, serpent, fish and lilacs.
Levinson successfully attempted to progress from sunshine through twilight and night to the approach of dawn. The tendrils of vines are portrayed by oboe and clarinet, and parrots in a palm tree are depicted by a bass clarinet and flute. Mezzo-soprano Freda Herseth presented the music with natural ease.
The Gamelan Semara Santi, founded by Whitman at Swarthmore College, then took over the stage. Its 21 musicians, clad in robes of blue and orange with red sashes, played a variety of percussion instruments with hammers and mallets, backed up by a large gong.
The music is intricate, mesmerizing and also loud (it’s intended to be performed outdoors). In Swarthmore’s high-ceilinged Lang Hall, it was less deafening than when the same program was performed the night before inside the cozier Ethical Culture Society in Philadelphia.
The instrumentalists were joined by dancers from the Indonesian Cultural Club for Rejang Dewa, a traditional piece transcribed by I Nyoman Suadin. These dancers— colorfully clad, barefooted, with towering headwear— interpreted the music with specific movements of their arms, hands and fingers.
Orchestra 2001’s artistic director, James Freeman, asked Whitman to compose a new piece that utilized a gamelan orchestra and the eight players of Freeman’s ensemble. Inside/Outside clearly paralleled Black Magic/White Magic, and it recognized that chamber players are based in small rooms while gamelan is intended for open-air temples and palace courtyards.
The composition is most interesting when the “outdoor” instruments play a slow and lyrical melody that resembles Western Classical music. It’s least effective when the two groups play simultaneously, because the louder, more insistent gamelan band drowned out the sounds of violin, clarinet, oboe and flute. Despite that small flaw, the new composition made a spectacular impact.♦
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