For over twenty years, the intrepid Albany Symphony has presented their annual American Music Festival, two weekends of works championing our nation’s own living composers. The 2019 iteration, “Sing Out! New York,” celebrated two monumental milestones at the center of New York’s history in the fight for social justice: the centennial of the passage of the 19th amendment, and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. From May 30 to June 2, the Albany Symphony and special guests took over the city of Troy with a whirlwind 12 events in five venues featuring 51 new works, including 26 world premieres by 38 composers. Not only did this massive undertaking succeed logistically, but it also shed light on the diversity of voices writing today.
Friday evening’s performance by Dogs of Desire (Albany Symphony’s new music chamber orchestra) consisted of five world premiere collaborations in an immense production of music, dance, and theater. Loren Loiacono’s Petticoats of Steel and Rachel Peters’ If You Can Prove That I Should Set You Free both focused on the suffrage movement, incorporating speech and monologue as theatrical devices. Clad in period costumes, five members of Capital Repertory Theatre presented what felt like mini re-enactments of a suffrage rally between Loiacono’s new settings and arrangements of late 19th century songs. Despite some excellent vocal writing, the theatrical portion made it occasionally veer towards trite. Peters achieved more of a coherent narrative by setting the spoken text above orchestral accompaniment. Excerpts from African American activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s 1866 speech “We Are All Bound Up Together” against musical settings of Alice Duer Miller’s satirical poetry sought to bring issues of racism within the suffrage movement to light.
In Transfigured, Viet Cuong concentrated on the festival’s other main theme—the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Cuong created a brilliant and darkly humorous work that placed jaunty tango-like gestures within an agitated harmonic world. Members of the Adam Weinert Dance Co. literally played with tension and release, held together in pairs by large stretchy bands around their waists. The room became a spectacular swirl of color until musical stasis and tranquility came over everyone, the dancers braiding their single colorful strands together to create a united whole.
Clarice Assad and Andre Myers looked at the theme of equal rights via a specific individual. A hazy, mysterious drone introduced Assad’s Aint I A Woman, which featured Sojourner Truth’s speech of the same name before opening up into mesmerizing three-part singing (Assad, joined by vocalists Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Lucy Dhegrae). The crux of the work incorporated six young women from Girls Inc, who worked together with Assad to create an infectious pop number that excelled in its ability to channel its own girl-band power into focused unison singing. Myers also featured young performers, this time the Albany High School Chamber Choir, in the funk-infused Studies in Hope: Frederick Douglass. Two student MCs rapped about Douglass’ life with conviction well beyond their years over a backdrop of spirited brass, drums, and choir. This ingenious combination created a unique texture that proved to be one of the most powerful of the evening.
Saturday’s “Speak Out, Justice” program featured Albany Symphony musicians in four world premiere melodramas for chamber orchestra and narrator. On the surface it was an interesting concept, yet in execution, the politicized words somehow resulted in four mini Hollywood scores. Judy Bozone’s MOONSHOT, using the words of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, featured Fitz Gibbon as narrator in an exceedingly sumptuous work that sounded dramatically optimistic in its lush harmony. Evan Mack looked at Justice Kennedy’s Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage in A Little More Perfect. The motivically-driven work combined spacious clarinet, solo trumpet, and Daniel Holly-Hunter’s earnest and warm speech to create a heavily cinematic experience that bordered on Ken Burns soundtrack. Molly Joyce’s Past and Present, a look at disability rights inspired by pioneering journalist Nellie Bly, ushered in a darkly transparent atmosphere where the text was split and stretched out to create a more poetic, song-like feel. In I Dissent, Jorge Sosa’s musical vignettes on Sonia Sotomayor’s dissenting opinions, Joi Danielle Price lent a particular assuredness and vigor to her fast-paced narration, delivering text over melismatic murmurs, chorales, and feisty dances.
The festival also featured performances by guest artists, including vocal quartet I AM I AM I AM (Sun-ly Pierce, Chloe Schaaf, Paulina Swierczek, Seolah Yoo), who presented two world premieres on an all-female program. Alexis Lamb’s For Marsha (P. Johnson), with text by Aiden Feltkamp, explored the timbral combinations of unaccompanied vocal quartet including an exquisite layering and hocket-y textures. This was contrasted with Beata Moon’s Every Truth, a melodically-driven work on four iconic suffragists with a particularly theatrical spirit. The program also showcased the vocalists in solo settings, but the lack of printed texts and generally large dose of vibrato made it difficult to decipher the lyrics, which seemed largely integral to the works selected.
Other performances also focused on women, particularly Molly Joyce’s YousaidShesaidHesaid, a set of songs that traced the same timeline as Schubert’s song cycle Die Schone Mullerin, but from the perspective of the “girl of the mill” herself. Dhegrae sang the part of the mill girl in Joyce’s dreamy indie-pop songs and showcased her ability to seamlessly move from wispy ethereal to focused power. Between Joyce’s songs, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert sang the original Schubert with ultimate clarity and intimacy. Though the two distinct styles of music and text occasionally took away from the narrative coherence, the work as a whole was quite effective.
Another featured guest, the Argus Quartet, presented a magnificent program that highlighted the ensemble’s controlled attention to detail and resulting radiant energy. Christopher Theofanidis’ Conference of the Birds and Juri Seo’s Infinite Seasons did not fit into the festival themes, but instead offered excellent depictions of nature through lyricism and warmth. David Del Tredici’s Bullycide, a sextet dedicated to five gay teens who committed suicide after relentless bullying, was a Romantic memorial evoking promise and passion. Dark, brooding, and eerily theatrical, Bullycide juxtaposed intense rage with quick flourishes and richly melodic moments, indicating both the fleeting nature of life and the need to remember those who have passed.
Del Tredici was also featured on Saturday evening’s subscription performance. For all of the rich harmony and melody of Bullycide, Pop-pourri for orchestra, amplified rock quartet, chorus, and soprano, was a blur of light and sound, or an experiment in excess. A “Cantata of the Sacred and Profane,” as Del Tredici deemed it, the work intermingled crazy Alice in Wonderland texts against the sacred Litany of the Blessed Virgin and Chorale. The music depicts the battle with the Jabberwock through atonal moments complete with booming thwacks and high-pitched shrieks. The sound system was not one to mess with, though had it not felt over-amplified, it may have been easier to hear some of the subtleties. In a show-stopping blue sequined gown, soprano Hila Plitmann demonstrated her seemingly magical ability to channel both intensity and innocence in her dramatically virtuosic performance.
While Pop-pourri seemed an acquired taste for some, John Corigliano’s Piano Concerto, with pianist Philip Fisher, utilized a more familiar musical form with thematic expansion that allowed the dazzling writing to shine. Tanner Porter joined the Albany Symphony as vocalist for the world premiere of her work Knit/Purl, with words by Vanessa Moody. The vivid colors in the offstage brass chorales, drifting melodic lines in the strings and harp, and spacious harmony underscored Porter’s soaring voice as she used knitting as a metaphor for social change. As the work gathered strength, so did the vocal line, until Porter was confidently belting above bright flourishes, only to settle into a place that was reminiscent and melancholic yet simultaneously forward-looking.
After each evening’s immense mainstage production, special guests Joyce and Assad gave Late Night Lounge performances: solo sets in the casual atrium café. Joyce’s ethereal vocals, vintage toy organ, and electronic soundscapes created an exquisite expansiveness. Assad was joined by progressive hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon for one of the most effective presentations on the entire festival. From bossa nova to jazz and hip hop, Assad’s profoundly stylistic musicality and ability to move fluidly from one style to the next was electrifying.
Sunday’s outdoor community event featured a huge vegan food festival and pop-up performances by Joyce (a repeat of her Late Night Lounge set), Angélica Negrón (a set of songs featuring vegetable synth, similar to her Look + Listen Festival performance), and more. The “Suffrage Brunch” succeeded in reaching audiences of all ages, and had it not been interrupted by a dramatic downpour, would have been a wonderful afternoon.
The Albany Symphony and Music Director David Alan Miller, already distinguished for their long-time commitment to new music, produced a festival that was both intimate and far-reaching. Impressive numbers aside, “Sing Out! New York” offered audiences the opportunity to engage with current and historical social themes on expertly curated programs. As I wandered the Troy Farmers Market between performances, conversed with musicians in the five-day emerging composer workshop, and reveled in the wholly immersive experience, I couldn’t help but wonder why the festival has not reached the prominence of its other new music counterparts, for it proved to be a not-so-secret American treasure.