Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra dazzles with works old and new 

The Best of Both Worlds: Symphonic Music at the Gaillard

I love the juxtaposition of modern classical music with the masterpieces of generations past. Apparently conductor John Kennedy enjoys that too, placing the contemporary orchestral work Dreaming alongside Mahler’s 4th Symphony written in 1900. It is an inspired pairing, and made for a night of diverse sounds and emotions.

The program opened with Dreaming by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Composed in 2012, this was the US-premiere and Kennedy felt compelled to say a few words before they began. He discussed how Dreaming is a very nature-based piece. The sounds — screeching, droning, fluttering — are representative of things in the natural world. And he went on to say how appropriate it is to be performing this piece the week America pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement while simultaneously a massive crack — caused by climate change — has gained momentum on the Antarctic ice shelf, ensuring that soon an iceberg the size of Delaware will be adrift. (If you haven’t heard of this and you have the time, look it up. It’s worth reading about.)

The piece itself begins very quietly, the percussionists scraping symbols, creating unexpected textures with their instruments. This all happens unconducted. And the piece ends unconducted as well. Kennedy said you could see this is as a kind of metaphor for the earth existing before humanity and how it will continue to exist long after we’re gone.

The percussionists have their moment and soon the rest of the orchestra joins in, the music evolving into complex layers of sound weaving in and out of each other unbroken, totally trashing any preconceived notions of harmony and rhythm.

Eventually, seemingly random bursts of sound rise and fall throughout the orchestra — the screeching and fluttering I mentioned — until the sounds slowly fade away and the piece ends.

It is a deep, dark moody piece. And it’s not for everybody. In fact, an older couple in front of me was visibly annoyed by it. But for those with an open mind, willing to embrace new and strange experiences, it is an amazing work of art, and the highlight of the entire night for me.

That’s not to say Mahler’s 4th Symphony wasn’t great. It was. But the twenty or so minutes of Dreaming had me constantly engrossed, while there were times in the hour-long symphony when I was less than that.

Perhaps it’s because it is unabashedly a very upbeat, joyous piece of music, and I’ve always preferred darker works. But still, there is no doubting the quality of the composition.

It is a more traditional work, a four-movement symphony, expressing melodic and rhythmic ideas we are more used to consuming. I was impressed how the music remained interesting and audibly diverse though the mood remained pretty much the same throughout. Then soprano Pureum Jo came out to sing in the final movement, and I was mesmerized. Her voice was powerful when it needed to be and playful and sweet at other times. Lovely, ringing high notes and clear, crisp low notes. It’s a difficult piece to sing and she made it look easy.

She was even theatrical. Being that the song is in German, I had no idea what she was saying, but by her movements and facial expressions I was able to discern meaning. Her voice and presence demanded my attention, and I was glad to give her every bit of it.

As for the musicians in the orchestra, they were of the highest caliber. It’s difficult to give them their proper due considering when you go to an event like this you expect perfection, so when they fulfill your expectations, they can be taken for granted. But truly, these are amazing performers who have spent years refining their craft and deserve to be lauded over. Sincere praise to each and every one of them.

From an individual standpoint, the concertmaster ripped some blistering solos, and the emotion she exuded was palpable. Also, the cellist who ended Dreaming with a sort of solo of her own, screeching her bow over the strings, delighted and surprised me both rhythmically and from a timbre standpoint.

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend my Saturday night.

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