Heavy metal and symphony meet in Cello Concerto

Mike Dunham

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.

The work had its world premiere with soloist Inbal Segev and the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 23, which gave those on hand in Atwood Concert Hall the chance to work up their own similes. A person trapped in a windowless room 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 Mount 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 down, experiencing shifts in the ground every few moments and anticipating disaster at any second.

The rock/pop feel called to mind heavy metal thrash stylings and a number of people told me they liked it. The concerto was one of the most successful new works debuted by the ASO during the tenure of conductor Randall Craig Fleischer. Bristly as the first movement was, it held one's attention with its percussive persistence and drive. Segev's ferocious energy had the listeners on the edge of their seats as if they were watching a NASCAR race in sound.

All three movements are connected, played without a break between them. The middle movement features slowly shifting intervals over a drone. 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.

The very mechanical score had an undefinable humanity but no arc of destination in the finale. It felt 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 was not fulfilled by the end of the piece.

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. I would have been satisfied to try and listen a little harder during that long lacuna.

Respectable playing from the strings, and excellent work from the flutes, in Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3, the first of Grieg's "Peer Gynt" suites and the second of Ravel's "Daphnis and Cloe" suites -- though it was a somewhat passionless rendition -- as well as the first performance by the ASO of Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" rounded out the program.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com .