Cleveland Orchestra highlights new music with exhilarating “Composers Connect” event

Matthias Pintscher
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Boy soprano Asher Wulfman was the featured soloist in "With Lilies White" by Matthias Pintscher, one of four contemporary pieces featured on Saturday's "Composers Connect" event with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall.

In the orchestral world, the only thing rarer than a concert of contemporary music is one that sells out.

But the old saw that new pieces scare away listeners may be headed to the door like an offended patron after Saturday’s marathon presentation by the Cleveland Orchestra.

Free and informal, the special evening drew capacity crowds to Severance Hall while exemplifying a viable forum for the music of today and providing a rich, diverse experience unlike anything else on the orchestra’s calendar.

Titled “Composers Connect,” the event consisted of two hour-long concerts featuring four works made for Cleveland by the orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellows. Matthias Pintscher, one of the composers, conducted and spoke from the stage.
In between the two main concerts, a quintet performed Louis Andriessen's "Workers Union." The group consisted of drummer Dylan Moffitt and Cleveland Orchestra members, from left, Scott Dixon, Mark Jackobs, Maximilian Dimoff, and Marc Damoulakis.

All four works called for large orchestras, but Pintscher’s “With Lilies White” was particularly elaborate, demanding three sopranos, a boy soprano, and percussionists posted around the hall. But if the 2002 piece was busy, it was also effective, evoking in cinematic, spine-tingling definition the visions of a man slowly dying.

Within a tumultuous orchestral environment of wails and shrieks, 7th-grader Asher Wulfman intoned text by Derek Jarman with chilling purity and directness. Sopranos Sarah Davis, Kathryn Brown, and Cleveland native Susan Botti (one of the composers) surrounded him with ghostly moans. Music and text by Renaissance composer William Byrd produced jolting contrasts between old and new, and the faint final sound of rustling wood suggested a spirit floating away on the wings of birds.

Just as compelling, in a different manner, was Botti’s “Translucence,” from 2005, the night’s friendliest and most sheerly beautiful score. Where others seemed intent on overwhelming, Botti persuaded with soft elegies, ethereal interludes, and a vigorous, lumbering dance, all steeped in poetry by May Swenson. The orchestra brought off the vivid music brilliantly, and Pintscher’s conducting readily conveyed form and direction.

Such structural elements proved elusive in the other entries, “Concertate il suono” by Marc-Andre Dalbavie (2000) and “On Comparative Meteorology,” by Johannes Maria Staud (2009). The latter, especially, inspired by the writing of Bruno Schulz, offered few points of entry and little substance beyond curious colors and visceral punches.

Like “Lilies,” Dalbavie’s “Concertate” stationed players around the hall for antiphonal effects. His, though, were more explicitly the point, and the work’s most compelling moments were when percussive reverberations and sighing horns met in midair, like trapeze artists. Elsewhere, the piece was less gorgeously disorienting, urgent and slithering without apparent focus.

Those who hung around during the hourlong interlude witnessed a spectacle even rarer than two back-to-back concerts of modern music. For 15 exhilarating minutes, five musicians playing amplified instruments thrashed out Louis Andriessen’s “Workers Union,” a loud, gnarled piece where rhythms are firm but pitches are not. It was like heavy metal, only heavier, and the wildest aspect of an event one sincerely hopes becomes tradition.