Concert Prep

Concert Prep: Albany Symphony Orchestra Presents the American Music Festival

Albany Symphony Orchestra

David Alan Miller, Music Director

The American Music Festival with Dame Evelyn Glennie


Saturday May 17th 7:30PM

John Harbison – Darkbloom: Overture for an Imagined Opera

Clarice Assad – Scattered Concerto for Piano and Scat Singing

Featuring the composer on piano and scat singing

John Harbison – Closer to My Own Life for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra

Mary Mackenzie, Soprano

Joan Tower – Strike Zones for Percussion and Orchestra

Dame Evelyn Glennie, Percussion


In it’s signature event of the season, the Albany Symphony Orchestra welcomes back Dame Evelyn Glennie, renewing the collaboration that produced the orchestra’s first Grammy award earlier this year! This year’s American Music Festival features an exciting array of sights and sounds, and should produce a little something for everyone. Most exciting of all, both Harbison works and Strike Zones will be recorded the day after the concert! Let’s get right to the music.

This is my first serious encounter with John Harbison, and the first thing that strikes me is his love of tone clusters. Conventional chords feature 2, 3, or at most four notes. Tone clusters are chords that have more notes than that, and we may not be able to classify them in conventional, theoretical terms. The other thing defining tone clusters is their spacing – all of the notes are typically grouped together very tightly, hence the descriptor “cluster.” This means that clusters are typically very dissonant, but they are not necessarily ugly. In the works played on this concert, they are typically inserted to evoke a sense of wonder, or mystery. Also of note in Mr. Harbison’s works today – their dramatic bent. The overture belongs to an actual opera that Mr. Harbison began work on, but never finished because he couldn’t find any backers for the project. The song cycle has some very unusual lyrics. This is post-romantic music – music that has emotional content, but maybe not your conventional “happy mad, sad, glad” emotions. How does it make you feel?

As indicated in the title, Clarice Assad’s Scattered Concerto features a scat singer and pianist, and therefore has strong jazz influences. While both this and the song cycle on tonight’s program feature a solo vocalist, the voice is used in very different ways. In the song cycle, the vocalist is used as a sort of narrator, and expressive vehicle. Contrasting with that is the scat singer, who uses her voice in a very instrumental fashion. This truly is a concerto for voice and piano, perhaps the first of its kind. The piano and the singer are both amplified, while the orchestra is not. This will provide some unique sounding moments as the amplified instruments attempt to mesh with the acoustic instruments.

Joan Tower has this to say about Strike Zones.

“It’s about the zones of timbre of the various percussion instruments — vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, and others. And of course, all percussion instruments are ‘struck’. It takes each instrument, starting with the vibraphone, probably the least strong instrument of percussion, and the orchestra takes off on the timbres of each instrument that’s playing in succession, and tries to balance it.”

Dame Evelyn Glennie instructed the orchestra that this work was more a concerto for orchestra with an enlarged percussion part, than a percussion concerto. Lots of very interesting effects take place that make it seem as though the orchestra is amplifying the percussion. For example, the vibraphone plays in sync with the clarinets in the beginning, striking tones which the clarinet takes up and lengthens beyond the limits of the vibraphone. This is what Joan Tower means when she speaks about the orchestra taking “off on the timbres of each instrument.” The percussionists of the orchestra also have plenty to do – there’s a big timpani part, and there are a pair of percussionists stationed in the hall to create an antiphonal effect.


All in all, this will be the most exciting concert of the season, and I can’t wait to see you all there!


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