The regional American orchestra is in crisis, culturally and financially, and one proposed cure for its ills is to go local: to serve local communities and tell local stories through music. The North Carolina Symphony put that theory to the test at the Shift festival at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Wednesday, with an intrepid program of new works from or inspired by its home state.
Unlike the Boulder Philharmonic, which on Tuesday opened this week-long celebration of the American orchestra, co-presented by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, with a conventionally populist program, the North Carolinians refused to play it safe. Under conductor Grant Llewellyn, the orchestra offered a mini-survey of new American music in wildly divergent styles, including three pieces commissioned or co-commissioned by the organization.
The one masterpiece from the co-commissions was Caroline Shaw’s “Lo,” a gently rapturous work for violin and orchestra from 2015. Shaw, a Carolina native, famously favors writing for smaller groups and friends, and the deeply personal “Lo” is her first work for orchestra. The composer herself performed the solo violin part, which is only partially notated, with penetrating beauty. But the brilliance of “Lo” is the way it enacts, through its structure, Shaw’s close-knit process of musical collaboration: of learning, trust, improvisation and community. It is a strikingly original and moving work that rethinks what orchestral writing can be.
The rest of the program was more mixed. Mason Bates’s “Rusty Air in Carolina,” a fusion of electronica and orchestral writing from 2006, sounded gimmicky and trite a decade on. Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Hiraeth” (2015) wore its heart on its sleeve, with densely textured and darkly atmospheric sounds accompanying a film evoking childhood memories and loss. And in a nod to Carolina history, the concert was bookended by works by revered local composer Robert Ward: his swaggering “Jubilation Overture” from 1944 and the schmaltzy “City of Oaks” from 2008.
Yet for all the programming smarts and creative risk taking on display, here’s the bad news: Barely anyone came. The Kennedy Center priced tickets at $25, marketed the heck out of the festival, closed the upper tiers of the hall and partially papered the house, and there were still yawning rows of empty seats in the orchestra. Never has a concert left me so optimistic about the potential for new music in this country but at the same time so pessimistic about the future of our institutions. The crisis continues.