The best day of his compositional life seemed just out of reach: On Sunday, Princeton-based composer Steve Mackey won a Grammy Award for his disc Lonely Motel, but it was for best small-ensemble performance; the classical-composition trophy, for which Lonely Motel also had been nominated, went to the opera Elmer Gantry. And in the same time slot, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia premiered his excellent new work, Tonic, though it threatened to slip through the ensemble's collective hands.
The two pieces hail from different Mackey hemispheres. He's among the few classical composers to claim the electric guitar as a primary instrument, and that's apparent in Lonely Motel, the latest of several ambitious collaborations with performance artist Rinde Eckert that are eloquently snarky and veer musically between rock and even harder places. But traditional chamber orchestra is the sound envelope for Tonic (repeated at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Temple Performing Arts Center). Though full of solos that pop in through the side door, Tonic is cohesive by any standard, and, in that sense, stands on the shoulders of the tightly constructed, shimmering string writing of late-Sibelius works. Tonic could easily become Mackey's calling card in the mainstream orchestral world.