The ACO asks the big question about American music

The American
Australian Chamber Orchestra
City Recital Hall
November 12

When Dvorak assumed the role of director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York in 1892, he suggested that Native American and African American music should be the basis of an American national style. Today, this seems both naïve and prescient.

Most American composers do not evoke folk tunes as Dvorak did, especially in his New world Symphony. But black music was to have a huge influence on America and around the world in a style Dvorak had never heard: jazz. This judiciously constructed program, culminating in an arrangement for string orchestra of the so-called American String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Opus 96, has pursued the paths less traveled on American soil for the next 130 years.

The leader of the ACO, Richard Tognetti.Credit:Daniel Boud

One of the most intriguing works is that of Florence Price, the first known African-American woman as a symphonic composer. His Five Counterpoint Folk Songs seemed to take Dvorak’s suggestion like a glove. All three selections took Clementine, Short bread and Swing low through very advanced contrapuntal elaborations bringing to life the techniques of the 18th century in a 20th century context.

One remembered Condoleezza Rice’s comment “I speak French, I play Bach – I’m better at your culture than you.” The ACO began the program by highlighting the energizing impact of immigration on American culture with a gripping and incisive reading of Bryce Dessner’s Aheim. Conceived as an homage to his immigrant grandmother, he used the numbing repetitions of American minimalist style in an evolving succession of textures to create surprising, sometimes fierce impact.

lyrics for stringss, by George Walker, the first black graduate of the Curtis School of Music, also demonstrated a contrapuntal mindset in his expressive crafting of descending phrases, evoking a sound reminiscent of the romantic style of Samuel Barber.


COA frontman Richard Tognetti then plugged in his electric violin for the world premiere of Samuel Adams Echo Transcripts in which the soloist’s amplified line found increasingly rich and varying-density reverberations from the orchestra behind. The soloist’s part sank in and out of the sonic fabric as if lost in a crowd in a sacred space.

In a movement by Morton Feldman Rothko Chapel, violist Stefanie Farrands played beautifully shaped solos between calm orchestral textures like minimalist panels on stone walls. The provisions of Book of John’s Alleged Dances by John Adams (father of Samuel) sat slightly uncomfortable, the string orchestra sounded slightly stiff and constrained against a click track.

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