Old music meets new with mixed results

For composer Jeremy Gill, a premiere.
For composer Jeremy Gill, a premiere.
Posted: February 27, 2013

Bad ideas can be less intimidating than brilliant ones: Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, for example, is one of the composer's more ramshackle works. Yet the Mendelssohn Club commissioned local composer Jeremy Gill to write a companion piece to it. As if we needed another?

But without a masterpiece as competition, Gill seemed creatively liberated in Before the Wresting Tides, which premiered Saturday at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, and showed him claiming his artistic identity beneath Beethoven's furrowed brow.

But in a separate, conceptually parallel collaboration between Piffaro the Renaissance Wind Band and the modern Orchestra 2001, old and new companion pieces abounded with questionable ideas that stayed that way. The centuries between the group's two repertoires never connected Friday at the Trinity Center for Urban Life, though at least an excellent (but short) new Kile Smith piece came out of it. What made the difference? Knowing when bridges are built on sand.

Best news first: Gill's Tides uses a large canvas and gives chorus, orchestra, and virtuoso pianist much to do as the music leaps out in many directions, its burgeoning sense of invention prompted by Hart Crane's restlessly morphing imagery in the poem "Voyages II" (used in the piece's choral parts).

Even the piano-orchestral prelude gave pianist Ching-Yun Hu big-fisted, harmonically unstable chords - exhilarating indeed, but music that could scare small children (a few were seen bundling up and exiting halfway through). The ending is a stunner: While the words contemplate paradise of the sexual sort, the choral writing reflected the strain of getting there and the loneliness of arrival.

Also featured was Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 played by the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra under founder Jeri Lynne Johnson. The newish ensemble's performance had classicism, vigor, well-contoured phrasing, and solid playing that sounded radiant in the acoustics of the cathedral.

In the Piffaro/2001 concert, Piffaro did what it always does: Play ancient songs, dances, a Cavalli aria featuring soprano Julianne Baird (who sounded wonderful) with robust instruments that don't seek to create pretty blends of sound. 2001's brass and wind ensemble, whose creamy blends seemed tepid in comparison, chose works by PDQ Bach (the comic persona of Peter Schickele) such as Fanfare for the Common Cold. Such pieces need their author's comedic stage brilliance to be anything but silly. The similarly rowdy Renaissance Redux by Arne Running fared no better, aside from the serious middle movement, "Pentecostal Palestrina," showing a genuine composer at work.

The new Smith piece, Redtail and Hummingbird, was played by both ensembles in separate performances. The Piffaro version had particularly intellectual passion clearly outlining the memorable thematic basis of the piece and showing the music's distant kinship to Monteverdi's Orfeo overture.

But what seemed like a rock-solid piece (more rapid and dense than typical Smith) had obscure-sounding dissonances when repeated by Orchestra 2001, which uses different tunings. The concert's most substantial 2001 contribution was Jacob Druckman's modernistic, thorny, partly electronic Delizie contente che l'alme beate.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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