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Dutch Treat
By B.A. Nilsson

Dogs of Desire
Arts Center of the Capital Region, March 21

The cumulative effect of a classical-music concert is easily clouded by familiarity, where pieces present themselves as dangerous or safe. Mozart overture: safe. Berg concerto: dangerous.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary-music ensemble, the Dogs of Desire, presented eight world premieres last weekend, all of them commissioned by the group. Talk about dangerous! Musically, there was nowhere to hide, and the 99-seat theater in the Arts Center holds you pretty well captive, too, especially when it’s packed to the brim, as was the case for both of the performances that night.

I saw the early show, and found every aspect of it impressive. The works themselves proved what a vast range of style and sound falls into the category of classical music; the programming demonstrated that the leap from one “dangerous” work to another is itself exciting.

At his most Leonard Bernstein-like, conductor David Alan Miller introduced the theme of the concert: four American and four Dutch composers capturing a sense of the cultural identities of their native countries, as well as a look at the other country’s culture. And he put it in the context of the 350th anniversary of the founding of Albany as the Dutch settlement “Beverwyck.”

There were great contrasts among the works, such as the succession from Patrick David Clark’s witty Spel to Barbara Okma’s Straight. Spel, drawing its text from a 1952 Homemakers Encyclopedia’s advice on how to train young children, sounded at times as if it had crawled out of the ’50s. “We always try to do the right thing; this way, that way, wrong way! Attention! And follow the rules!” barks the text, sung in appealing harmony by vocalists Alexandra Sweeton and Barbara Hannigan; with the wryness of Poulenc and the wash of sound of an old educational-movie soundtrack, American-born Clark cannily paralleled his own experience studying in Holland, where “they like to put the wrong notes in,” and he was strongly urged to do so.

You could say there were wrong notes a-plenty in Straight, but Okma’s purpose was to summon mood through texture. Each instrument was confined to three notes—low, high and in-between—and the dynamic range also seemed to follow three levels. What started as a three-chord progression picked up rhythmic intensity, and this fascinating swirl of sound eased to a gentle finish. “I wanted it to be very Dutch,” said the composer, a Holland native. “Very controlled. Not too involving.”

ASO composer-in-residence Derek Bermel’s At the End of the World set a modern, existentialist poem to compelling music with a hint of Shostakovich in its use of chorales that suddenly turn unfriendly. Bermel showed great accomplishment in setting voice with orchestra, and drew marvelous effects from the players, such as the use of string harmonics.

Charles Coleman’s use of a vocal setting, in Pavement, was similarly effective. A tribute to his native New York, it set a Walt Whitman text describing a promenading Broadway throng. The two singers began in unison, breaking into harmony as the text and setting grew more animated. Tension was underscored by an insistent drumbeat—a device used repeatedly throughout the evening—and string ostinatos, while the melodic and harmonic language seemed close to an intelligent version of Broadway theater tradition, as if Sondheim suddenly went for broke.

Although Michel van der Aa hails from Holland, he chose to capture the essence of life’s many cycles in In Circles: “You find you go through the same things over and over,” he explained, “like always finding the same girlfriend.” He saluted American culture with the use of “a really cheap mono cassette deck,” with which singer Hannigan recorded and replayed sections of the piece, thus weaving a tinny echo of the music through the music, at times pairing the two to haunting effect.

Composer John Korsrud is a Canadian who studied with Andriessen for two years. As a jazz trumpeter, he incorporated a sense of improvisation into Chrome Oxide to satisfy his insistence that “music should be intensely . . . something.” A swinging drumbeat combined with the more formal sound of rising arpeggios and bursts of brass, all purposefully drifting in and out of sync as Miller cued the various sections. It was a Raymond Scott tune gone amok, a reminder that there’s plenty of room in this music for things to seem wrong and still sound accomplished.

“I wrote a piece about failure,” said Kevin Beavers. “It’s about somebody who can’t match his socks but who wants to be a smooth as Derek Bermel.” Something Like That starts with the feel of an 18th-century overture, territory also mined by William Bolcom, but soon strays into gimpy jazziness complete with written-in mistakes.

An endearing work with a surprisingly gentle finish, it set the stage for David Dramm’s Beverwijck Overture, the one work that perfectly satisfied the commission with its setting of a 17th-century text by a Dutch ship’s captain who sighted a white whale in the Albany harbor and didn’t know what to make of it. “He blew water up out of his head,” the captain wrote, and that line was caressed by singer Hannigan over an instrumental texture that prolonged her pitches even as a trombone pedal suggested the fury of such a beast. That ever-present ticking of a drumbeat brought it to an end, the final line—“Only God knows what it means”—a suitably portentous sign-off.

Excellent performances and an enthusiastic interaction with Miller and the composers (all of whom were present) made this as vital an event as the classical music world can hope to come up with. Limiting it to an audience of 200 probably was shrewd, but the program was ill-served in that nobody else saw fit to review it. Too dangerous for the critics, perhaps?

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