Fusion was the self described “f-word” in the forward to the American Composers Orchestra‘s program for “Sins and Songs” at Carnegie Hall. “Fusion” with a capital F. A word that invokes eye-rolls reserved for kimchi tacos, elevator music, and …nuclear physics. A word that many self-respecting music lovers have eschewed from their vocabulary. On February 27, the ACO presented an audaciously “fused” catalog as part of their Orchestra Underground Series and pulled it off by conscripting a pocket-sized powerhouse in Shara Worden.
draKOOL by Daniel Schnyder served as an opening fanfare. Inspired by possibly the best source of subject matter, ever (a “monster party”), draKOOL brimmed with drama. Schnyder constructed an amalgam of sounds both strange and familiar. Gershwin swing met Satie’s twirling Parade. “Smoke on the Water” met Eroica‘s funeral march. There was pomp in a prickly pizzicato section and a dreamy love theme that degenerated into ominous, craggy strains. Only thirteen minutes long, it felt like riding through a haunted carnival horror ride where the expectation of something new popping out was half the fun.
My Brightest Diamond is a project that Shara Worden has been polishing for almost a decade. With a pedigree in opera and composition, she’s made waves in both new classical and indie rock circles. For Carnegie, her chameleon act edged towards the cabaret with the ACO backing three of her original songs. During “We Added it Up,” a celebratory ballad of contraries, her gestures and gesticulations accentuated the hypnotic color of her voice. She sounded remarkably clean and clear, with a depth and range buoyed by ACO players. This was not a soprano in viking horns contending with Wagnerian combustion, it was a songbird perched on the shoulders of the orchestra. The clever lyrics of “We Added it Up” hearkened back to something like Lorenz Hart standards. “Looking at the Sun” and “Whoever You Are” were more solemn, with Worden’s voice blending with and lending to the orchestra.
In selections from Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered, Worden set aside the pep for some more subdued. Based on grisly subject matter, “The Swan” was dark, cinematic, and passionately delivered. “The Witch” was intense, curling, and fierce, with groundwork laid by a jazzy guitar shuffle. If these two selections are any indication, Unremembered is a deeply personal, brave work from Snider. Her music provided a somber, if not unwelcome, lull to the evening.
For the world premiere of Carman Moore’s MADIBA, Worden ceded the stage to the talented young cellist Khari Joyner. Yet, the central figure of this piece was not actually in the room. Moore “cast” the cello as the sonic embodiment of Nelson Mandela in an aural chronicle of triumph and bondage. There were times when it felt like a familiar New Orleans romp. Bursts of brass were subdued by breathy, rumbling colors that receded into solitary moments of introspection. There were moments of constricted lamentation with interspersions of eloquent, lyric passages from Joyner. The writing for cello was simultaneously mellow and gritty, featuring both the strength and softness exemplified by its subject. MADIBA was a bolt of empathy, a trance inspired by one of modern history’s central figures. Through it Moore channeled the tragedy of Mandela’s plight and the world’s admiration of his strength.
Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, the oldest piece on the bill, was decidedly fresh. Composed by the German ex-pat in 1933, it was a cautionary tale with nods to cabaret and jazz. Worden returned to the stage as the embodiment of two main characters, Anna and Anna. Essentially one divided being, the story follows the two as they journey through seven American cities. Each one leads to another form of temptation and a notch towards downfall. Their undoing is lamented by their family back home in Mississippi, given voice by the incomparably entertaining Hudson Shad Quartet. The sins were given embodiment in lyrics and music – sloth was conversely turbulent while pride was a boozy waltz. Wrath featured a convincing performance by Worden who infused venom into her coloratura. In gluttony, Hudson Shad sang as if they were in a cantata dedicated to corpulence. Lust and covetousness were pulpy, engrossing dramas and envy ended in a maelstrom. For all of the evening’s bits and pieces, themes and subtexts, the ACO and Worden had the artistry and appeal to tie it all together. And in a rare spot, fusion came off eye-roll free.