Music Review: Orchestra of the League of Composers Takes On a Challenge

June 20th, 2013

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Orchestra of the League of Composers/I.S.C.M. The oboist Liang Wang, at the Miller Theater at Columbia University on Monday.

Making new music is hard work, both for the composer confronted with a blank page (or screen) and for the performer, who is usually faced with limited time to hone an unfamiliar piece before offering it to the public. The challenge is especially acute for an orchestra, for which expenses are high and time is in short supply.

Full marks, then, to the Orchestra of the League of Composers/I.S.C.M., a five-year-old freelance ensemble fielded by a 90-year-old advocacy organization, for undertaking a program of six worthy pieces at the Miller Theater at Columbia University on Monday evening. The concert, “Reflections & Memories,” included two world premieres, three relatively recent works and an older piece well worth reviving and reconsidering.

That piece, Leon Kirchner’s “Lily (for soprano and chamber orchestra)” (1978), offers a tantalizing sampling of the rare, refined music from Kirchner’s sole opera, widely viewed as a notorious failure in its 1977 New York City Opera debut. “Kirchner is one of those solid academicians who turn out well-constructed pieces admired by professionals,” Harold C. Schonberg wrote in his review in The New York Times of the premiere.

Perhaps. But to judge by the suite Kirchner initially extracted from the opera before its first staging, he also wrote music suitably rich and alien to convey a vivid sense of his source: “Henderson the Rain King,” Saul Bellow’s novel about an American businessman who tries to reclaim his lost ideals on a trip to Africa.

Certainly Kirchner’s astringent themes, primitive electronics and portentous recorded narration are of their time. But this performance, assertively conducted by James Baker, and buoyed by Sharon Harms, a precise, luscious-toned soprano, made you want to hear more.

The evening’s premieres, Wang Jie‘s “Oboe Concerto for the Genuine Hearts of Sadness” and Keith Fitch‘s “In Memory,” had interesting things to say and intriguing ways to say them. Ms. Wang’s concerto, a virtuosic vehicle for the New York Philharmonic’s principal oboist, Liang Wang, ventured from primal split tones and ritualistic gestures through a tender soliloquy to a frenetic, percussion-driven finale. Mr. Fitch’s piece — initially a memorial to a mentor, then diverted and deepened by last year’s massacre in Newtown, Conn. — was a placid, whole-tone meditation, shaken by violent outbursts and haunted by ghostly quotations from Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder.”

A fuller assessment of those works will have to wait for surer accounts than the earnest but inconclusive renditions elicited here respectively by Mr. Baker and another conductor, Louis Karchin. Eve Beglarian‘s “Waiting for Billy Floyd” (2010), an evocative, atmospheric rendering of a shocking episode from a Eudora Welty short story, fared better.

The two other works, Bruce Adolphe’s amiably jazzy “Crossing Broadway” (2007) and Elliott Carter’s pithy, chatty brass trio, “Call” (2003), came off with assurance and verve. And, despite illness and flagging energy, John Schaefer of WNYC worked valiantly as the concert’s genial host.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 20, 2013

A music review on Wednesday about a concert by the Orchestra of the League of Composers/I.S.C.M., at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, misidentified the conductor of the performance of Wang Jie’s “Oboe Concerto for the Genuine Hearts of Sadness.” While Louis Karchin did in fact conduct Keith Fitch’s “In Memory,” James Baker — not Mr. Karchin — conducted the oboe concerto.

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