Every summer, the National Orchestral Institute brings together the cream of young American instrumentalists to play orchestral repertory under important conductors at the University of Maryland. But another annual tradition is the New Lights concert, in which the students explore different ways to approach the repertory. This year’s New Lights concert, on Thursday at the Clarice Smith Center’s Gildenhorn Hall, began with applause.
Well, at least it began with clapping, as a circle of students in the empty lobby started to clap, like kids enacting a ritual, and then moved into the hall like latecomers, still clapping. Their arrival triggered other students to stand and join in, until the room was ringed with rhythmic patterns washing around the audience. Music? Not music? At the very least, a bridging of the passage from silence to music; the clapping yielded without a break to the first movement of Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto.
This set the tone for an evening that presented the concert hall as a kind of laboratory, but in a seamless musical experience that was built entirely out of presenting different kinds and colors of sound, all strongly played. The performance was a single movement, about 45 minutes long, in which individual works or parts of works were linked like stations on a map, each leading logically to the next. The integrity of the works themselves was not affected — though one might question the substitution of a marimba for the trumpet in the Bach, a quiet instrument replacing a clarion one.
The Bach ended with a sigh: The players all gave a collective glissando, letting the notes slide down their instruments as if letting the air out of a balloon. It was an apt lead-in to the fragmented sound world of John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, represented by its second movement, in which little searching fragments of sound sighed up from the instruments, placed offstage. This segued into the more reassuring mode of Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” (“Mirror in the Mirror”), which sent musical moods rising and falling on the repeating triads from an offstage piano, and led into an improvised vocalise that was meant to be joined in by everyone in the hall.
And if this approach left anyone wanting more structure, they got it in the final piece, Paul Moravec’s “Brandenburg Gate.” A response to the Brandenburg Concertos as well as the iconic Berlin monument, it had some of the busy energy of both. It was striking that the newest piece on the program was in a way the most conventional, certainly in its presentation: Here was a three-movement work, with dynamic fast movements framing an elegiac slow one, and the beginning felt wholesome, crackling, exciting. If the piece didn’t manage to sustain the same level of interest throughout, it was certainly adroitly composed, and wrapped up the evening as it had begun: with an homage to Bach, and more applause — this time, from the audience.
The National Orchestral Institute concludes on Saturday with a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony, led by Asher Fisch.