Dallas — The Nasher Sculpture Center’s Soundings series has been called unconventional, and justifiably so, if the series’ most recent offering is any indication. And the already challenging program of Saturday, Dec. 12, faced its own challenge before it had even started—the electrical power at Booker T. Washington’s Montgomery Arts Theater had gone out, so there was some scrambling to look for an alternate venue for what had been an evening carefully planned around the original space.
The concert began a half-hour behind schedule in Hamon Hall of the neighboring Winspear Opera House—which had some other things going on at the time. Apart from that opening curveball, the tightly organized program, featuring the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), proceeded as planned; that didn’t mean that the audience was through witnessing curveballs—just that all the other curves were premeditated.
The first surprise was the group’s presence on stage: the audience probably didn’t expect an orchestra that doesn’t employ a conductor, nor did they expect the entire ensemble to stand by, in position, while Jonathan Vinocour intoned Christopher Theofanidis’ memorial to his teacher Jacob Druckman in Flow, My Tears, for solo viola. Whether this unusual management of personnel was an adaptation to the evening’s change of location or is standard for them doesn’t matter. It was good for the continuity of the program and reinforced its themes of hope, memory, expression and community.
The audience probably found the works by Jörg Widmann (Ikarische Klage, for strings) and Philippe Hersant (Choral, for cello and harp) the most challenging of the evening. The Widmann, which, by way of Baudelaire’s similarly titled poem, applies the mythical Icarus figure to artistic endeavors, featured once-shocking string techniques which have taken their place among the standard ways of playing—“snap” pizzicato and bowing with the wood of the bow, for example. The Hersant, which featured cellist Efe Baltacigil and harpist Sivan Magen, transformed an ancient melody into clouds of harmony and back into melody with an occasionally difficult logic, but with solemn and beautiful results. The sensitive collaboration between Magen and Baltacigil stands out as one of the highlights of the evening.
The program included the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ A Thousand Cranes for strings and harp, a work that raises to a principal the technique of inducing a melody to generate its own harmonic support. It’s a way of producing a texture that Theofanidis undoubtedly inherited from Jacob Druckman; it’s one of the techniques that makes Druckman’s music so enchanting, and it’s clear that Theofanidis has taken that technique in his own direction, with results no less enchanting. It’s something that ensembles have to be very careful with, though, and the coordination it requires is not simplified by the elimination of a conductor. ECCO managed it to near perfection, though—the composer’s angular melodies were never lost in the harmonic waves they produced, and Sivan Magen’s presence on harp was a crucial factor in ensuring harmonic and melodic clarity. If the piece is indeed Theofanidis’ second symphony, as the Soundings website encourages (and it would have been nice to coordinate information on website and in the program), it stands in sharp contrast to the composer’s voluminous—in every sense—first symphony.
Perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise was the inclusion of two works by Johann Sebastian Bach. One of them, an orchestration of his harmonization of the chorale tune “Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele,” may have been included for philosophical or musical reasons. The other, the Chaconne from the D Minor Partita for violin, received a most unconventional performance that may have posed the biggest challenge of the evening: five violinists—Alexander Kenney, Yura Lee, Ayano Ninomiya, Susie Park and Michi Wiancko—playing a work usually entrusted to one.
Was this a case of five doing the work of one? Hardly. It’s a difficult work to play, but splitting it up doesn’t make it easier. Word is that it was the (brilliant!) idea of Soundings’ director Seth Knopp to play with the piece spatially (by stationing the five violinists around the room), musically (by having the players pass the music back and forth, sometimes sharing it, sometimes even orchestrating it) and visually (by having each player clothed in a different color). Conquering the problems of the seamless coordination of five players wearing different outfits across unusual distances is, as they say, no mean feat, and I can’t find evidence that this exciting way of presenting the work has been attempted before. If it has, I can’t imagine its being carried out with more artistry and musicality.
Sometimes the word “unconventional” is code for “you’re not going to like this,” but not this time. Little, if anything, was conventional about the East Coast Chamber Orchestra or their program on Saturday. But this time, let’s agree that unconventional means “how soon will ECCO return to Dallas?”