Composer's 'Tonic' goes down easy

Dirk Brossé directs Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. On Sunday, the ensemble premiered Steve Mackey's new work, "Tonic."
Dirk Brossé directs Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. On Sunday, the ensemble premiered Steve Mackey's new work, "Tonic." (JANETTE McVEY)
Posted: February 14, 2012

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.

Though Mackey has written overtly emotional music such as Beautiful Passing (inspired by the death of his mother), Tonic has greater power to infiltrate one's consciousness. You don't need to know that the title refers to the tonic-clonic epileptic seizures suffered by the composer's 3-year-old son to feel a kind of creeping anxiety beneath the piece's glossy surface.

Tension comes, goes, and constantly morphs with a viselike implacability. Climaxes build slowly, from within. Wind solos swoop in like drunken birds. Shade turns into bursts of light without warning, though seamlessly. As with Sibelius' Symphony No. 7, the ending has several harmonic sleights of hand within a matter of seconds, leaving no question about Mackey's command of his craft.

Composers tend to like the kind of shipshape performances rendered by Chamber Orchestra's music director, Dirk Brossé: clear, confident, brisk, crisp and forthright. My view of the piece from reading the score and hearing a rehearsal is much the opposite: Mystery, surprise, and a hazy atmosphere are what it needs. As it stood, Tonic was accessible, and engaged the ear on a highly cerebral level - but it has so much more to offer. Sunday's audience at the Kimmel Center was one notch above respectful.

The orchestra played consistently well under Brossé, including the engagingly melancholy Premiere Valse, by little-known 82-year-old Belgian composer Frédéric Devreese, that left you wanting more.

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto could have used a stronger pulse in its sublime slow movement. But Metropolitan Opera clarinetist Anthony McGill played with the sort of supreme grace and legato that I never thought I'd hear from anybody other than the Philadelphia Orchestra's departing principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales. Hmmm. Auditions, anyone?


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at

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