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S & H International Concert Review

Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson, conductor, Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York City, September 19, 2003 (BH)


At the end of ĎAntlerlope Gallanteí, part of Benedict Masonís Animals and the Origins of the Dance (1992), the deadpan musicians walked to the front of the stage and bent down to turn on portable CD players -- I counted about 15 of them -- which concluded the piece with quiet musical fragments while the human performers walked offstage.  Masonís witty, slightly melancholic work requires theatricality as well as musicianship, and was just one triumph for the talented group Alarm Will Sound, a new music ensemble with origins in the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.  

Michael Gordonís Yo, Shakespeare, with its array of amplified instruments divided into three discrete groups, was entertaining enough, if a trifle too long to my ears.  But it was performed beautifully, and made a lively start to the evening that included a vivid and impressive history of the theatre, delivered with aplomb by its executive director, the multi-faceted George Steel.  And just before intermission, we were treated to a sly and energetic rendering of Ligetiís Chamber Concerto, a masterpiece percolating with irresistible rhythms and buzzing textures.  

Most successful was the finale, John Adams' rollicking Chamber Symphony, which uses a trap set as the percussive spine, pushing the ensemble along the composerís cartoon-soundtrack paths.  Iíve now heard the piece live several times, and each performance leaves me grinning.  Adamsí confluence of rhythmic ideas -- overlapping lines often played, in the composerís words, with "alarmingly fast tempi" -- seems fresher at each hearing.

Squirreled in between were two of Conlon Nancarrowís Studies for Player Piano, in chamber orchestrations by the late pianist Yvar Mikhashoff.  Nancarrowís writing is legendary and formidable, even when the workload of playing the complicated lines is distributed among many, rather than relying on a single instrument.  The second, No. 6, was especially well positioned, with its drowsy blues elements making a graceful interlude before the propulsive Adams that followed.  

With disarming assurance, Alan Pierson conducted (and occasionally played keyboards) without using scores the entire evening.  Alarm Will Sound is an insouciant group with enthusiasm to spare, and seems happiest if its performances strike with the fury of a rock band.  I didnít see anyone in the packed house complaining.  The group will return to Miller on Dec. 5 with music of Harrison Birtwistle, a concert I donít intend to miss.

Bruce Hodges




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