Half-notes from the Underground

“Orchestra Underground” has proven a doubly apt moniker for the American Composers Orchestra’s concert series at Carnegie Hall. Performances literally take place below street level; the city’s N and R subway lines come within nine feet of Carnegie’s 644-seat Zankel Hall. Figuratively and more significantly, the series showcases work that pushes boundaries and advances agendas, with an underground movement’s conviction and clout. The ACO’s first concert of 2005 even came with a convenient mission statement: “[To reach] deep into technological and spatial elements of composition and instrumentation, as well as new ways to integrate the experimental with orchestral tradition.”

In the case of composer Carlos Carrillo G’03, folk traditions were integrated, too. Carrillo’s “Algunas metáforas que aluden al tormento, a la angustia y a la guerra” (“Some metaphors that allude to torment, anguish, and war”) draws inspiration from the work of playwright and essayist Luis Rafael Sanchez, a literary hero in his native Puerto Rico. The 15-minute piece began the evening on a high note, with engaging rhythmic exchanges that nearly shook the wood-paneled room. Conductor and ACO musical director Steven Sloane cued an octet of woodwinds, brass, and piano, along with So Percussion, an impressively precise quartet.

Carrillo’s opus divided into three parts, each corresponding to a scrap of Sanchez. The first movement, “Como la metáfora de la batalla con el angel” (“like the metaphor of the battle with the angel”), established a precedent of roughhewn percussion overlaid with sleek contemporary classical dissonances. The second section, “Como la metáfora de las obsesiones circulares” (“like the metaphor of the circular obsessions”), interpolated a purgatorial repetition of melodic themes; at one point, the woodwinds worried anxious screeches worthy of Psycho-score composer Bernard Hermann, while bursts of clangorous tom-toms and cymbals erupted underneath. In the third movement, “La metáfora de los demonios” (“The metaphor of the demons”), all these strands wove together in a polyrhythmic 12/8 pattern that had So Percussion’s four drummers calling and responding on gongs, bongos, and Bata drums.

Fulfilling the ACO’s mandate to “break down barriers between composer, performer, and audience,” Carrillo at one point had hand percussionists disperse throughout the aisles. But gimmickry had little place in Carrillo’s composition.

Aside from the presence of So Percussion, which dominated the stage with an arsenal of instruments, there was no punch line or easy ploy. Puerto Rican and Afro-Cuban rhythms underscored the performance, but always in strict service to the music. And the piece’s illustration of metaphorical struggles was implicit, requiring no preambles or disclaimers.

Algunas metáforas” was the byproduct of BMI’s Carlos Surinach Commission Award, which Carrillo won last year. It was, in fact, the latest in a series of distinctions earned by Carrillo, whose Ph.D. in composition from Penn followed an Aaron Copland Award, a Van Lier Emerging Composer Fellowship, and a Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere (and preceded his assistant professorship at DePauw). Taking the Zankel stage, the composer acknowledged his cheering, standing ovation with a smile that lit up the darkest recesses of the underground.

—Nate Chinen C’98

©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/05


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Arts Calendar

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