With a changing culture and shrinking audience base, orchestras around the country have been throwing all manner of ideas up against a wall to see whether any stick. Some companies have turned to video screens and live-feed program notes streamed to smartphones. Concerts of video-game scores are now almost as common as “A Night at the Movies.” The Colorado Symphony recently made headlines and got a few jokes on late-night TV for its planned “cannabis-friendly” concerts (now under legal threat by Denver officials). The success of these efforts remains ephemeral.
The National Symphony Orchestra has tossed together a number of ideas in its “New Moves: symphony + dance” mini-festival, which continued Saturday evening with a program on the same template as Thursday’s and which will be repeated Tuesday: a first half of Americana (here, Gershwin and Barber), plus a modern concerto featuring an NSO musician (here, timpanist Jauvon Gilliam in a work by James Oliverio); then a dance troupe joining after intermission (here, the New Ballet Ensemble from Memphis) performing in front of the orchestra on an expanded stage area.
The single dance number that ended the evening was simply dazzling, eliciting an audience response that dwarfed all that had gone before. “Harlem,” by Katie Smythe, was set to a score of Ellington in a new genre called “Memphis Jookin,” whose vocabulary is a dizzying mishmash of Cab Calloway, Alvin Ailey and hip-hop. The nine dancers shimmied, levitated and jolted their way through eye-popping solos and ensemble work, bringing a cheering crowd to its feet.
Would that the NSO had found a way to elicit some of that energy in the rest of the program. The “Porgy and Bess” medley seemed to sheepishly recall bygone days when people actually hummed along to Broadway melodies; the Barber ballet music “Souvenirs” was more vital, but the dancers’ absence was palpable; and the timpani concerto, harsh and dissonant, belonged on another program altogether. Gilliam showed off some “new moves” of his own, displaying impressive quadra-dexterity as he navigated his eight drums plus tuning pedals, but the artistic achievement of the piece was too cerebral for most in the audience, to judge from the applause.
Conductor Thomas Wilkins had a huge load to shoulder: unfamiliar music all evening long in an unending stream of meter changes. He and the musicians communicated little, all focusing on their scores, but he got everyone through it, a couple of unfortunate solos notwithstanding. A great deal of planning and high-level effort by all concerned went into this festival — to what ultimate end, I’m still unsure.
Battey is a freelance writer.