A Celebration of the Grawemeyer Awards in Music
University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra & Wind Symphony
Held: March 8, 2007
The night's concert presented the music of eight of the twenty-one winners of one of the nation's most prestigious awards for music composition. The composers' names read like a veritable "who's who" of the last twenty years -- Witold Lutoslawski (1985), Joan Tower (1990), John Corigliano (1991), Krzysztof Penderecki (1992), Karel Husa (1993), Toro Takemitsu (1994), Aaron Jay Kernis (2002), Sebastian Currier (2007). An evening of music by these composers, most of whom have stood the test of at least a little time, and all of whom have triumphed over intense competition to win the Grawemeyer Award, must have seemed like a foolproof formula for a successful concert. A possible weakness, however, might be whether student ensembles were up to the task. Contemporary music often makes enormous demands on its performers. Rhythms tend to be very complicated, fast parts don't usually follow the well-practiced patterns of scales and arpeggios, extended techniques are often employed. Members of an ensemble must spend hours alone with their metronomes before even beginning the daunting job of putting the numerous complicated puzzle parts together in group rehearsals. The task of the conductor is equally difficult as he or she must not only often cope with the technical challenges posed by constantly changing meters, but also must try to understand each composer's idiosyncratic language and make sense of a score which is not yet part of the common repertory. Let it be said at the outset that both ensembles and their respective conductors performed magnificently! One could not have asked for more committed and technically assured playing and conducting.
The first half of the concert featured the University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kimcherie Lloyd. Ms. Lloyd, who exhibits a clear, no-nonsense conducting technique, had prepared her orchestra well, and they played their four works with the ease and assurance of an orchestra performing a familiar Mozart symphony. First was the short and raucous Fanfare for Louisville by Lutoslawski. This brief work, with its many aleatoric passages, gave the brass players a chance to shine.
Next, the strings were in the spotlight, performing Aaron Jay Kernis's Musica Celestis. Whereas the Lutoslawski was short and raucous, the Kernis was long (too long for this listener) and gentle. It was the evening's only "easy listening" and gave the performers a rare chance to play expressively. Soon after the piece ended, flashbulbs on many of the audience's digital cameras resumed sending out their blinding light. As I entered the hall before the concert, it was obvious that the parents, colleagues and friends of the performers were going to record this event at Carnegie Hall for posterity, and there was nothing the ushers could do to stop them. Although no flash pictures were taken while the music was being played, I still found the picture taking very distracting.
The evening's major work followed, Karel Husa's Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra. This piece, winner of the 1993 Grawemeyer Award, has a fiendishly difficult solo part which was brilliantly played by cellist Paul York. I most liked the work's opening passages which featured the orchestra's lower instruments and the solo cello. After that, the cello was accompanied by lots of barking brass. I soon lost interest, although one had to be in awe of Mr. York's playing.
A bit of comic relief followed. Dr. Christopher Doane, Dean of the University of Louisville's School of Music, came out on stage to announce the winner of the 2007 Grawemeyer Award. But in one of the greatest of the world's concert halls, the microphone didn't work. After a while we heard an incredibly loud sound, one which made all of the evening's dissonances seem benign. The mike then worked and Mr. Doane graciously made light of what had just happened (I hope Carnegie Hall refunded the extra charges for microphones) and introduced Sebastian Currier, whose work Static was this year's winning composition. The very long first half ended with a performance of Mr. Currier's eleven-minute Microsymph.
The second half of the concert was performed by the University of Louisville Wind Symphony, under the expert direction of Frederick Speck. Wind symphonies (i.e., bands that don't march) don't get much respect in the classical music field. But any negative preconceptions were quickly dispelled by the performance of tonight's ensemble. This was playing on the highest level - impeccable intonation, an elegant clarinet section, almost flawless brass playing, an incisive percussion section. I was most impressed. I can't say the same for the five pieces they performed. By this point in the evening it all seemed to sound alike. Perhaps my ears were tired toward the end of an evening of demanding music. Perhaps it would have been better to present just a few Grawemeyer Award compositions combined with other pieces, which would have allowed us to hear these wonderful ensembles show what else they could do.