Kenji Bunch's "Embrace: Concerto for Electric Violin and Orchestra" received its Pacific Northwest premiere with soloist Tracy Silverman and the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night. The first piece played after intermission, it began with an empty stage, instruments set neatly on or next to chairs. The house went dark except for several glowing cell phone screens. (Yoo-hoo! We can see you! Or was that part of the show?)
Silverman began playing offstage, slowly walking into view, joined in time by Robert Arms on a drum set and conductor Randall Craig Fleischer. Sound effects were cued to come from around the seating area. Backstage horns intoned an eight-note theme that would become the core of the piece. After many minutes of what mainly sounded like improvisational noodling by the soloist, the other members of the orchestra came up and took their positions.
The music had a certain similarity to Deep Purple's "Concerto for Rock Band and Orchestra," for those whose memories stretch back to the '60s. It shared the agitated energy of a power band and many of the same physical habits, like several minutes dwelling on the same basic - very basic -- chord pattern or substituting drone-like repetition for the development of an idea. Once the whole orchestra was in place, the eight-note theme was trotted out again and played several times. "Movie music" is a hackneyed cliché that should be banned from reviews, but in this case I was reminded of a very specific piece of movie music -- the "American Symphony" from "Mr. Holland's Opus." The Holland piece may actually have been the more melodic, but it wasn't memorable enough to stay in my head and I don't think "Embrace" will either.
Silverman's own "Between the Kiss and the Chaos: David," a movement from a larger work referencing Michelangelo's famous statue (marble was among the percussive devices used), had more thoughtfulness and serious emotion. Winds established a clear mood at the start before the solo violin joined in. It still had a jazz/improvisational feel, but it led to a calculated climax that was brief but impressive, then subdued to a contemplative finish.
Another Silverman piece, "Overture for Strings," a moto perpetuo that was largely a rocking reel rhythm, concluded the announced concert. Silverman returned for two encores, riffs on pop classics "I Wish" and "Stairway to Heaven."
The audience was well short of a full house, but enjoyed Silverman's styling and his astonishing instrument, with its numerous electronic voices and low notes and special effects. The cheers that greeted the Bunch concerto and the overture would have made one think Atwood Concert Hall had standing room only.
Maurice Ravel's pretty, meandering "Le Tombeau de Couperin" opened the evening, a not particularly crisp reading though the sections played their parts well enough. The winds were particularly on target, especially oboist Sharman Piper, on whom most of the solo passages fell. Fleischer rightly gave her a solo bow at the end of the piece.
Fleischer led the orchestra's first performance of Robert Schumann's Fourth Symphony with an agreeably brisk and tight approach, though the ensemble wasn't always attentive to nuance. In the second movement, for instance, concertmaster Kathryn Hoffer's solo was covered by the rest of the orchestra. The same thing happened with Emily Weaver's English horn parts in the Ravel.
Nonetheless, it was a robust and committed performance from the players; a special salute is due to the strings. They made a compelling case for the work and I would like to hear it again after the new acoustic shell is made available for ASO concerts next season.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM