The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By Pierre Ruhe
March 7, 2009
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Poetic works have local ties

The Atlanta Symphony’s latest recording project for its longtime label, Telarc, is under way this weekend in Symphony Hall.

The core of Thursday’s concert centered on composers who were in the audience, each with a strong Atlanta tie.

Jennifer Higdon’s “The Singing Rooms” premiered last year in Philadelphia, where she lives, and is a co-commission with the ASO, an orchestra that calls her one of the family. It sets disparate poems by Jeanne Minahan and is scored for unusual and ungainly forces: a solo violin (the dazzling Jennifer Koh), large chorus and orchestra — about 300 people onstage.

Koh’s violin offers running commentary, helping depict such potent images as “bright heat barely held back by the venetian blind” and “If I told you my dream (the one on a boat).” To keep the soundscape uncluttered, Higdon has the chorus sing homophonic lines — where everyone sings the same words and without counterpoint.

Across its 35 minutes, there are moments of romping playfulness or ear-catching tenderness, such as Koh in duet with solo cello or English horn.

Minahan’s poems are uneven in quality, although that’s not insurmountable for a composer. What felt frustrating was Higdon’s compositional bag of devices. Her toolbox is so vast, and she deploys them so adroitly — billowy, Japanese-sounding impressionism here, chunky dance rhythms there, powerful climaxes around every bend — that you sometimes wish she’d force herself to use a more limited palette within each movement. Each of the seven sections felt overstuffed; few stood out as emotionally affecting.

Another homophonic choral work, Alvin Singleton’s “PraiseMaker” (1998) — on a poem by Susan Kouguell — came from the opposite direction. The Atlanta-dwelling composer limits the mood and builds to a raw, concentrated spiritual power. Like much of Singleton’s music, there are flashes of anger, too, although its origins are left unsaid.

Conductor Robert Spano and his musicians, steeped in Higdon and Singleton’s styles, offered all but perfect performances.

The evening opened with Wagner’s poem of ecstasy (aka the Prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan”) and closed with an urgent, tightly wound reading of Scriabin’s “Le Poeme de l’extase,” the best I’ve ever heard it played.

© 2009 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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