That this past evening’s Lincoln Center performance of Tan Dun’s Cello Concerto wasn’t upstaged by the Orchestra Now‘s colorful, majestically dynamic, cinematic version of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome speaks equally to the quality of the composition and the musicians playing it. Having a composer on the podium isn’t necessarily a good idea, since many lack the ability to communicate exactly what they want in a split-second. But Tan Dun was confident and assured, building a vigorous repartee with the ensemble throughout a bill that reflected the diverse and often perverse challenges that even the most seasoned players can be forced to take in stride.
The Cello Concerto is one of four, each written for a specific soloist, utilizing the same orchestral backdrop. This one is a real showstopper, a frequently microtonal work (especially at the end) that required all sorts of daunting extended technique not only from cellist Jing Zhao but the entire orchestra. The Asian influence was most strongly evident throughout a long series of strangely cantabile glissandos, and swoops and dives, front and center in bright stereo from various sections and soloists, percussion included. From a vast, overcast, enveloping slow build, through thickets of agitation, thorny pizzicato and more than one interlude that was essentially cello metal, the group seemed to be having a blast with it. Even the two trick codas as the end were as seamless as trick codas can be.
The other Tan Dun piece on the bill, his Passaglia, is one in the most formal sense of the word: varations on a simple, catchy bass figure. It’s an etude, an opportunity for young musicians not only to take turns in brief, emphatic solos, but also to tackle the many unusual challenges (many would say indignities) that orchestral musicians these days are called on to pull off. In this case, that included singing n unison, chanting, stomping or clapping out a beat…and using their phones. This deep-jungle theme and permutations briefly employs a sample of birdsong which the audience were also encouraged to download and play on cue. As expected, that interlude was rather ragged and took twice as long as the composer had intended. Even so, Tan Dun’s relentless, puckish sense of humor and peek-a-boo motives won everyone over.
Respighi’s tour of Roman activity beneath and around the conifers was as vivid as it possibly could have been, enhanced by the composer’s original instructions to position brass above and to the side. Introducing the piece, violinist Diego Gabete-Rodriguez reminded that Respighi had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which came through mightily in the clarity of individual voices over fluttering and then lush strings, delicate accents popping up everywhere when least expected. The kids playing a frenetic game of hide-and-seek in the Villa Borghese; the somber catacomb milieu of the second movement; the glistening nocturne of the third; the concluding ominous buildup to what seems like inevitable war (remember, this was written under the Mussolini regime); and final triumphant scene were each in sharp focus.
The orchestra opened with Smetana’s The Moldau, which, paired alongside Tan Dun’s nonstop excitement seemed tired and dated. The musical equivalent of a first-class minor-league team, the Orchestra Now’s mission is to give up-and-coming players a chance to show off their stuff in the real-live situations that they will undoubtedly encounter as professional orchestral musicians. The Czech composer’s water music is a perennially popular curtain-riser, one unfortunately too often paired with a piece as jarringly different as the rest of this bill was. To be able to leap that stylistic chasm could mean a thumbs-up from a hiring committee; in this case, the group seemed to be holding their energy, and emotional commitment, in reserve for the fireworks afterward.
The Orchestra Now’s next Manhattan concert is Nov 18 at 2 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works by Chopin and Berlioz; you can get in for $30.