ASO at Spring for Music – by Joseph Dalton

“Uncommon concerts” (Spring for Music)
“Listen Adventurously” (Albany Symphony Orchestra)

When two organizations have mottos so in synch, a collaboration seems inevitable.

And so on Tuesday night (5/10), the Albany Symphony Orchestra and music director David Alan Miller made their long awaited Carnegie Hall debut as part of the first annual Spring for Music Festival.

My review for the Times Union gives some of the highlights of the performance and further thoughts on the program, which was already heard at the Troy Music Hall about 10 days ago.

I like Zachary Woolfe’s review for the New York Times because he acknowledges solid playing from the orchestra but focuses, rightly on the content of the works.  Where I cited the hall for making the orchestra sound so good, I think by the same token the hall may have somehow robbed the spirituals of the variety and diversity I’d heard previously, first in the Canfield Casino some years back and more recently in the Troy Music Hall.
But there was so much more to the experience then what happened on stage, especially for this former Manhattanite turned upstater.  The parquet seating area was almost full and was a delightful, surprising, even slightly disconcerting mix of friends and acquaintances who made the trek from the Capital Region alongside friends and colleagues from the New York music industry. Spirits were high and there was lots of talk of how great the ASO sounded in the hall.

I was fortunate to sit in on the afternoon’s rehearsal. It was a pretty standard run-through of the works with a few fixes and fine tunings by David. But during one of the spirituals, David let the orchestra keep going on its own, jumped down off the stage and trotted up the left aisle to ask for comments and suggestions on the sound from composer Aaron Kernis (we’ll be hearing a lot of his music next season in Albany).

After a few moments of whispering between conductor and composer David returned to the podium and encouraged the orchestra — which was clearly enjoying the roominess of the stage, after too many cramped nights at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall — to pull a little closer together, hoping that the result would be a greater sonic unity.

Otherwise most of the comments that David gave to the orchestra I couldn’t quiet catch from my seats out in the house. Plus, I took the opportunity to try a few different seats in the house during the two and a half hour rehearsal. (How often does one have the chance to test drive different seats in Carnegie?)

My colleague at the T.U. Tom Keyser must have been on hand because he heard the welcoming remarks given to the orchestra at the launch of the rehearsal. He reports them here.

During the one break in the rehearsal, I was introduced to Thomas W. Morris, artistic director and CEO of Spring for Music. A former top executive at the Cleveland Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he’s a veteran of the business and an obvious admirer of David and the ASO.

Realizing the importance of this guy, I quickly grabbed my reporter’s notebook and jotted down some of his remarks. I asked if he’d ever heard the ASO in Troy. He shook his head. I asked if he, in fact, auditioned the orchestras in the festival. Again, the answer seemed to be not really. The choices were based on programming.

“The sheer quality of orchestral playing around the country has never been higher,” says Morris. “But if you have a music director with a coherent viewpoint you get so much more. It’s not all that complicated. This (pointing up the ASO players on stage) is an orchestra with a point of view.”

“If you read reviews in the New York Times regularly, you’ll see that programming is now on the radar” continued Morris. “One of the goals of this festival is to elevate thoughtful programming as a goal and a topic of discussion. That seems to be happening.”

When I told Morris that the other symphony that I cover regularly is the Philadelphia Orchestra (during its annual summer residences at SPAC) and that the difference in programming between ASO and PO is dramatic, and often disheartening.

While acknowledging the difficulty of a summer residency with four consecutive nights of concerts each week and minimal rehearsal time each morning, Morris seemed to understand the frustrations I’ve often expressed about the Philly’s uninteresting recycling of works. Yet rather than make any strict diagnosis of what’s happening with the Philly and it’s infamous bankruptcy proceedings, Morris asked at least a couple rhetorical questions:

“Do you think if they had an engaged relationship with their audience, they’d have these problems?

“How does an orchestra create a relationship with an audience?

“You do that by keeping repertoire fresh, creative and engaging and maybe even a little uncomfortable. It used to be that orchestras had distinctive styles that reflected their conductor, their community and their venue.

“The lush Philadelphia string sound under Ormandy and Stokowski was actually partly a response to the dry acoustics of the Academy of Music. Now with jet planes and recordings and interchangeable parts, a lot of the individuality has been smoothed out… But an orchestra can’t be everything to everyone.”

All that and off the cuff during a few minutes chat. Clearly a lot of advance thought went into Spring for Music.

Before the rehearsal began, there was a bit of mingling just off stage in the auditorium, with David Miller and ASO executive director Brian Ritter speaking with some of the festival’s producers.

Daniel R. Lewis, chairman of Spring for Music (it’s its own nonprofit, working in cooperation with Carnegie), looked David dead in the eye and said, “Thank you for doing this.”

Taken a back and shaking his head in disbelief, the maestro replied, “Are you kidding? It’s made our decade.”

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