“This is America”, a musical journal of the past two years and how it has shaped us
When the solo violinist looks like a hipster prophet, the new music program is called This is america, and the performance date falls on the first anniversary of the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, some fierce musical commentary is to be expected, right?
Fierce, often. But comment? The music for solo violin presented by Johnny Gandelsman on Thursday by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society was more like a series of music journals from composers who have weathered the tumultuous events of recent years.
The bearded, Curtis Institute-educated Gandelsman is best known for performing with three of the most avant-garde ensembles – the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet, the Knights Chamber Orchestra and the Multicultural Silk Road Ensemble. But as a soloist Gandelsman clearly has a lot in mind and many songwriter friends, having over 20 pieces commissioned from organizations, from Philadelphia to Portland, totaling four hours of music for solo violin that will eventually be recorded and released under the title of This is america.
Thursday’s concert selected seven pieces from this body of work, two co-commissioned by PCMS, and was broadcast live by the American Philosophical Society with an in-person audience limited to 30.
The project began around April 2020 when Gandelsman began asking composers to âreflect on when we are inâ in pieces for unaccompanied violin. âThinkâ is the key word here. Instrumental concert music tends not to be a political medium or to explicitly portray anything outside of itself. The compositions for solo violin lean more towards confession than towards greatness.
The very personal tone was set by the first piece. In a prerecorded audio program note, songwriter Christina Courtin opened up about writing her piece “Stroon” while pregnant in confinement, and warned listeners that there would be sketchy content. It was true, but the piece got a cumulative effect, becoming more and more subdued, down to a single repeated note with a contrasting pizzicato that was ultimately hypnotic. In contrast, the show ended with Grammy-winning Rhiannon Giddens’ extrovert âNew to the Session,â though the catchy and upbeat dance tunes had interludes of melancholy reflection.
Between the two, the best piece of the concert truly embodied the platitudes of peace and healing that we hear so often nowadays: “A travÃ©s del manto luminoso” by San Juan-born Angelica NegrÃ³n explored an alternative association with January 6 – Three Kings Day which is widely celebrated in Latin cultures. The solo violin was complemented by a vast electronic track of synthesized outer space noise with what may be the lowest sound frequencies the human ear can hear – much like a ship’s whistle – amid racing violin arpeggios and moments of static rest. The idea was to describe Puerto Rico’s night sky – and unfolded with a sense of serene fascination. You wanted the play to last forever.
But this is not the case. And others, less fortunately, have.
One was Conrad Tao’s âStones,â one of the program’s best-known names, in a piece based on a stone sculpture he saw on New York’s Upper West Side. The program notes were engaging but the music was discursive with widely spaced notes, like a phrase in which you only hear one in five words. After that, Tomeka Reid’s Rhapsody (commissioned by PCMS) was a compelling lyrical relief, beautifully written for solo violin, in what came out as the most infectious of these deeply felt soliloquies.
âFor Courtney Bryanâ by Tyshawn Sorey (another composer) sounds great as a concert piece but, having been commissioned by the Vail Dance Festival, has already been used as a dance score by Philadelphia’s Ballet X. The piece itself- Even begins with a mellow, dissonant effect that could be compared to a toxic haze – in a very hectic room whose repetitive passages have captured the maddening and redundant days of the pandemic with searing, interrupted screams. It might not sound like a flattering description, but the play really spoke to me.
Olivia Davis’ “Steeped” too – but in a more passive way. âIt’s winding. It’s a bit lost, âDavis admitted in presenting his article,â but there is potential for hope and improvement. I cannot say it better.
All along, Gandelsman has proven himself to be a violinist who can do it all. His Bach recordings favor a thin and neutral violin tone, but with moments of great rhetorical originality. When a more lush amplitude of sound was required, as in Reid’s Rhapsody, he produced it. Gandelsman had the advantage of having two violins on stage, the second used for Giddens’ “New to the Session” vernacular, allowing him to convince your ears that he perhaps came from the Appalachians.
The concert will be available on request until Sunday evening. Information: pcmsconcerts.org