Orchestra 2001 challenges convention and expectation

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When thinking of a traditional orchestra performance, one image comes to mind: an incredibly large ensemble, toiling through a long and complex three-movement symphony. We even imagine the classical and traditional sounds of a violin, viola or cello in a Schubert or Mozart composition. At Sunday’s Orchestra 2001 concert, the performance veered from the typical sounds of an orchestra, with instrumentation ranging from a solo violin with live electronics to exotic percussion and voice. Orchestra 2001’s ensemble performed contemporary American composer George Crumb’s “Voice from the Heartland: American Songbook VII,” as well as Louis Andriessen’s “Letter from Cathy” and “Anthèmes II” by Pierre Boulez.

Vocal soloist Ann Crumb sings at the Orchestra 2001 concert held in Lang Concert Hall this past Sunday. (Allegra Pocinki/The Phoenix)

With the mission to “perform and promote the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, premiering new works, providing a major focus for the best new music of our time, while introducing unknown older works, and reaching out to regional and international audiences through recordings and tours,” Orchestra 2001 brought audiences into a new and diverse music world. “I hope they [audiences] are curious when they come. We are not doing Beethoven symphonies, Mozart symphonies which you know; we are doing something that you probably never heard before,” James Freeman, professor emeritus of music at Swarthmore and conductor and artistic director of Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001, said.

Freeman shared his thoughts on choosing these pieces and putting them in certain order. “‘Voices from the Heartland’ is a world premiere by a very important and significant composer and that was where the program began,” he said. This indispensable and internationally well-known composer is George Crumb who received the Pultizer Prize for Music in 1968.

Besides this approximately 45-minute piece, Orchestra 2001 performed this Sunday a piece by Boulez, a French composer of contemporary classical music, in each of their upcoming performances. Boulez’s piece “Anthèmes II” is regarded by Freeman as an interesting addition in comparison with the music of Crumb.

The set-up of the percussion instruments is a very significant element that Freeman must take into consideration. “We had to have that whole percussion situation in place because it takes three hours to set it up. You can’t set it up in intermission,” he said. The first half of the performance needs to contain relatively short pieces in order to fit for the whole percussion set-up. In addition to the selection from Boulez, Freeman chose the short piece “Letter from Cathy” by Andriessen, a Dutch composer. According to Freeman, it is a very touching piece. As one of the super stars of the contemporary music in the ’50s and 60s, “Cathy” is known by many in contemporary music circles. This intimate and quiet piece is quite a contrast to those of Boulez and Crumb.

Upon first reading the concert’s program, audience members in attendance may have felt confused as to why “Letter from Cathy” was to be played twice. “I’ve often thought that with a new piece of music, a piece that nobody has heard before, it would be nice to do it twice. But you can’t do big pieces twice,” Freeman said. “This short piece is six minutes long so you can do it twice and the audience gets to hear it for the second time.”

Together with the careful and comprehensive consideration of Freeman, the highly professional performers and composers ensured the success of this auditory feast. Gloria Justen, a violinist and composer who played the violin, has an abundance of performance experiences under her belt, often with different kinds of ensembles like the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. Justen believes that Boulez wants each memeber of the audience to have their own experience of the song and to enjoy the sounds. “What is interesting about this piece is the combination of the human being playing a physical instrument and the sounds which are generated by the computer. So it’s a conversation between the violin and these computerized sounds,” Justen said.

Marlon Cooper ’14, who plays the French Horn and is a member of Swarthmore College Orchestra, expressed his appreciation for the violin solo. “I thought the performance was really interesting, especially the Boulez,” Cooper said. “The amount of effort the violinist must have put into learning that piece must have been tremendous, and the electronics in the piece were the best I’ve heard, although I have not heard many electronic pieces to begin with.”

Peggy Thompson, a member of the chorus and the Balinese Gamelan (Indonesian percussion orchestra) at the college, attends Orchestra 2001 concerts whenever she can, along with her husband Peter Thompson, professor emeritus of chemistry. “For us, largely, it is a learning experience,” she said. “We didn’t grow up with this music at all. We had classical music.” However, upon discovering Orchestra 2001, the Thompsons realized that the more they attend the performances, the more they can enjoy the beauty of the music. “In the beginning, you just couldn’t understand. But I just enjoy listening to it and find it fascinating,” Peggy Thompson said.

Thompson also commented on George Crumb’s works, some of which she had listened to before the concert. “One of the things I love about George Crumb is how inventive he is. He takes ordinary things and converts them into percussion instruments,” she said. She showed as an example one big silver container, probably from a washed tub, that was used to produce certain sounds for the performance. “The sound that influences my music a lot is the sound of nature,” Crumb said, who infused many sounds like those of sea or wind into his music.

Orchestra 2001, founded in 1988, is in its 24th concert season and the founder Freeman hopes to continually bring more new and contemporary music to Philadelphia. “I started it because I thought there was a great need in the Philadelphia area for audiences to hear new music. There are many wonderful composers in the world and a lot of them live in and around Philadelphia,” Freeman said. “I think [the] Philadelphia Orchestra ensemble focuses on 19th century music primarily, not 20th century music, partly because it’s expensive to rehearse. It takes a lot more rehearsals.”

Bill Gatti, the administrative director of Orchestra 2001, explained the relationship between the College and the orchestra. Many concerts of the Orchestra 2001 are presented at the College and those programs that are performed here are all free to the public in return for the generous support of the college. “It’s a very nice thing the college does for organizations like ours. We get to use Lang Concert Hall for rehearsals; we get to use a whole bunch of wonderful incredible percussion instruments,” Gatti said.

“Next year is our 25th anniversary. We want to reach wider audiences, not just in this country, but abroad. We are planning tours next year to Cuba, as well as to West Virginia and the Library of Congress,” Freeman said. Orchestra 2001 is constantly making efforts to bring new American music to new audiences. Even the orchestra’s name suggests a modernity, as their website says, one that “marks the beginning of the 21st century and points in a new way to the future of the music of our time.”

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