When do good intentions lapse into good pretensions?
That was the question subliminally asked by the always progressive American Composers Orchestra on Friday at Zankel Hall, the small auditorium buried beneath big Carnegie. The proceedings, which included speeches and a documentary film, bore a broad titular umbrella – American Underground: Dreams and Dances. The musical references ranged from Thailand to the Balkans, from old New England to new South America. Amid the cultural zig-zagging, a non-capacity audience applauded warmly at every Luftpause.
The podium was expertly manned on this occasion not by George Manahan (resident music director), not by Dennis Russell Davies (conductor laureate) and not by Steven Sloane (principal guest conductor), but by a genial semi-outsider, José Serebrier of Uruguay. He sustained no-nonsense clarity and useful momentum with four disparate challenges at hand, culminating in the US premiere of his own snazzy Flute Concerto with Tango (2008).
After a few pianistic flourishes by Virgil Thomson, dedicated to the memory of a departed board member, the focus fell on The Migration of Lost Souls by Narong Prangcharoen. In 15 sprawling minutes, it reportedly explored “the journey of lost souls into the afterlife”. Carefully crafted, the modernist score suggested a battle between chaos and serenity. To these ears, serenity won.
Milica Paranosic contributed The Tiger’s Wife: Prologue for Orchestra. Ambitiously predicated on the novel of Téa Obreht, it fused sociopolitical and hyper-symbolic video imagery from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia with acrobatic vocals by Lori Cotler with varying orchestral blitzes. Authentic accents were presumably added by the composer bowing her one-stringed gusle, but the orchestra obliterated its delicate tone. And with a movie flashing on the big screen, it was hard not to think of the score, however complex, as background music.
Charles Ives’ ancient Camp Meeting, completed around 1911, sounded meek and mild, also lovely, in this context. Finally, Serebrier’s taut and transparent flute concerto suggested much ado about tootling. Fortunately, with Sharon Bezaly serving as soloist, the tootling was spectacular.