On Sunday night, Swarthmore’s resident new music ensemble, Orchestra 2001, directed by James Freeman, presented a diverse program to a crowded Lang Concert Hall. Though the pieces differed widely in style, they were united by their instrumental forces: all were written for string orchestra.
The first piece on the program was GyÃƒÂ¶rgy Ligeti’s “Ramifications,” a 1968 composition for 12 solo stringed instruments. The 12 instruments were separated into two groups, which were tuned a quarter-tone apart, which gave the music a permanently floating, dislocated quality. The piece explored the many colors of a string orchestra, opening with high, ghostly scratching lines that diverged and converged between the various instruments. A middle section used loud, incisive bow strokes, and also included pizzicato. The ending return to the high scrapes, fading off into a magical silence.
George Rochberg’s “Transcendental Variations” (1972) was a very different piece, here flexibly led by pianist Marcantonio Barone in his conducting debut. Unlike the Ligeti, Rochberg’s string orchestra is a lush, homogeneous sound body. The piece was resolutely tonal, with an elliptical and slowly unfolding melodiousness reminiscent of the late compositions of Beethoven, with a harmonic palette that recalls Schoenberg’s “VerklÃƒÂ¤rte Nacht.” The music was endlessly beautiful, and here performed in memory of its composer, a Philadelphia resident who died last year.
The final composition was Leonard Bernstein’s rarely performed “Arias and Barcarolles,” a collection of songs for mezzo-soprano (Suzanne DuPlantis), baritone (Randall Scarlata), and string orchestra, dating from 1988. The title originates in a 1960 concert by Bernstein for then-President Eisenhower, who said, “I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.”
But the Bernstein piece would probably have pleased Ike. The texts are a charming collection loosely united by a common theme (love, of course), and most of them have a contemporary freshness. The music, while perhaps not quite hummable, is easy to enjoy. The third song, “Little Smarmy,” to a text by Bernstein’s mother, Jennie, was a particularly funny story of a “little wuddit” (a rabbit) as performed by DuPlantis. Both singers seemed to get off to a slow start, and both were occasionally drowned out by the orchestra, but their singing gained great character and energy as the cycle progressed.
Orchestra 2001’s next concert in Lang Concert Hall isn’t until January 27. The program will include works by Ligeti, Mozart, Augusta Read Thomas, and the world premiere of Andrew Rudin’s “Canto di Ritorno.” It will feature Diane Monroe, violin, and Christine Brandes, soprano.