Anchorage — Composer Avner Dorman compares the first movement of his Cello Concerto to the survivor of a car wreck who wakes up in the hospital and doesn't know who he is or how he got there. The instrument frantically strikes the same notes over and over again throughout the movement, but doesn't get anywhere. An extreme tension fills the piece from the very first bar and never lets up.
Some in the audience to hear the world premiere of the work in Atwood Concert Hall on Saturday night had their own similes: a person trapped in a cage and can't get out, and when he does get out wanders aimlessly; a computer turned into a weapon; various kinds of psychic - or perhaps gastric - distress.
I found myself thinking of skiing down Mt. Alyeska in a whiteout, not even able to see the tips of the skis under powder snow, not sure of what was ahead or even which way to turn to slow, experiencing shifts in the ground every few moments and anticipating disaster at any second.
Be that as it may, the concerto was probably one of the most successful new works debuted by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra during the tenure of conductor Randall Craig Fleischer, both in terms of substance and effect. Bristly as the first movement was, it held one's attention with its percussive persistence and drive. Soloist Inbal Segev's ferocious energy had the listeners on the edge of their seats as if they were watching a NASCAR race in sound.
The first movement ends with the cello sustaining an augmented fifth that resolves into a perfect fifth to start the slow movement. (All three movements are connected, played without a break between them.) Much of the playing featured shifting intervals over a drone created by bowing the bottom two strings, the orchestra's cellos and basses playing the same two unfingered notes very quietly.
The finale is a perky dance in which the solo instrument is plucked throughout the movement, sounding something like an electric sitar or lute or oud. It winds down and a big chord closes out the piece.
The liveliness of the work seemed to please the crowd, many of whom stood and clapped as the composer took his bows. An undefinable humanity in the very mechanical score pleased me. But I should make two observations. 1. The amplification of the cello, necessary in the first and last movements, is not needed in the slow movement, where it sounds like the soloist is bawling over a breeze at dusk. 2. As with "Spices! Perfumes! Toxins," a Dorman work previously presented by the ASO, there is no arc of destination in the finale; it feels like the composer stopped writing only because he ran out of paper at that spot. Perhaps this is an aesthetic that springs from or is a comment upon the modern focus on process rather than accomplishment, activity over completion. But there's a kind of promise made by the structure of the first two movements that is not fulfilled by the end of the piece.
The big program also included Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3, the first of Grieg's "Peer Gynt" suites and the second of Ravel's "Daphnis and Cloe" suites, as well as the first performance by the ASO of Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." The performance was highlighted by excellent work from the flutes, in particular, from the first broken triad of the Beethoven, to Grieg's "Sunrise" scene to the florid solos in the Ravel.