New York Times

Music Review

American Composers Orchestra:
Eerie Clangor in a Parade of High-Tech Ghosts


The stage setup at the start of the American Composers Orchestra concert on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall seemed eerily high tech, at least in part. Amid an array of percussion instruments were eight Disklaviers, Yamaha's hybrid of a concert grand piano and a computer. The Disklavier can be played in the traditional way, but it can also record the player's keystrokes and repeat the performance on its own, much as an early 20th-century player piano reproduced music cut into a piano roll. The Disklaviers' keyboards faced the audience, as did their computer modules, with their glowing green lights.

And when Dennis Russell Davies stepped onto the podium, donned a pair of headphones and gave the downbeat, the percussionists and two live pianists went into action. So did the Disklaviers, the depression of their keys, as if by an octet of ghosts, creating a peculiar, automated choreography.

The work at hand was George Antheil's "Ballet MŽcanique," a riot of intertwined rhythms and noise -- including sirens, alarm bells and the low-pitched whine of airplane propellers -- completed in 1925. And apart from some obvious problems to do with the authenticity of the instrumentation, this was probably the performance that Antheil had always wanted to hear.

What the score actually calls for is an array of player pianos, but no one ever perfected a way to synchronize them, something easily done with a computerized instrument like the Disklavier. Mostly the work has been performed by live pianists. But that approach exacts a cost in the mechanical quality that Antheil wanted, and no doubt in accuracy as well.

Mr. Davies's players, living and electronic, gave the 34-minute work an energetic performance that never flagged, and within which the rhythmic patterns held as much fascination as the parade of noisy timbres.

The performance was part of the American Composers Orchestra's weekend-long commemoration of the Copland-Sessions Concerts, the pioneering series in which Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions gave American composers a showcase for their works, and during which the Antheil was performed in 1927. Copland and Sessions were represented as well, Copland by the "Short Symphony" (1931-33) and Sessions by the Symphony No. 3 (1955-57).

In the Copland one hears elements that emerged more fully a decade later: an arching melodic figure, for example, that resurfaced as connecting material in "Appalachian Spring." The Sessions is a rigorous work, full of rhythmic drive and a compelling angular beauty, as well as a subtle sense of humor that comes through in the finale. The orchestra gave both pieces detailed, alert readings.

Jennifer Higdon's "Fanfare R’tmico" (1999-2000), which came between the Copland and Sessions works, seemed to negotiate a stylistic middle ground between them. Tonal and flashy, with dense, demanding brass and percussion writing, it suited the ebullient spirit of the program. Mr. Davies and his group played the Copland, Higdon and Sessions works with vitality and great attention to the details of rhythmic interaction and balances of color.

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