The ambitions and hard work of the National Orchestral Institute, the training program for young musicians at the University of Maryland, continue to pay dividends. The concert of American music by this year’s National Festival Orchestra, heard Saturday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, was the first to be recorded in a new series for the Naxos label. Richard Freed, who writes the NOI program notes, made the suggestion to the leader of Naxos.
Guest conductor David Alan Miller, who has long championed the music of Michael Torke, opened with that composer’s “Bright Blue Music,” an overture-length work of bold, ecstatic energy that showcased his ensemble’s vast sound. The piece is, by intention, in one style and harmonic area for its entire length, but Miller and the musicians shaped the work effectively around several thrilling climax points. When a professional orchestra plays the suite of music from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” one sometimes senses a tired familiarity with the work. These younger musicians made it brim with optimism, although the exposed woodwind solos and multimetric dance rhythms in the fourth and fifth movements are hardly child’s play.
John Corigliano’s sprawling, complex first symphony, subtitled “Of Rage and Remembrance” for its programmatic elements related to the AIDS epidemic, required even greater concentration. Other than a couple of stray entrances in the opening section, admonished with a shake of Miller’s head, this was an intense, polished rendition, with the second movement’s savage Tarantella sharpened into a Mahler-esque, neurotic deconstruction of dance, complete with the plink of a mandolin. The third movement was somber and ardent, led by beautiful cello solos and the unforgettable rumble of the contrabass clarinet at one point, and the fourth shuddered with the pitiless march of implacable, triumphant death.
Downey is a freelance writer.