A landmark masterpiece premieres at Tanglewood

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LENOX — A call to action against what many see as the forces of darkness enveloping our nation.

That's what composer Michael Gandolfi achieved in the world premiere of "In America," an ambitious soundscape for large orchestra and six vocalists. Commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, Gandolfi boldly proclaimed resistance through an accessible score, by turns angry and percussive, in contrast with interludes of repose.

As head of the composition program at the TMC and a faculty member there since 1997, Gandolfi modeled "In America" on Leonard Bernstein's "Songfest," an expansive, optimistic work — also for six voices and orchestra — written to celebrate the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial. Gandolfi had studied with Bernstein in 1986, and his mission now was to help commemorate the centennial of the composer-conductor-educator's birth.

Dividing his score into three "panels" — titled "Whither the Phrase?" "Illumination" and "Voices of Strength" — the composer assembled a text based on quotations from poets, essayists and outspoken leaders of political and social movements. The list includes Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Dr. Martin Luther King, H.L. Mencken, Robert F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk and, in a dramatic conclusion, student leader Emma Gonzalez of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The impact of this half-hour work resonated powerfully through Ozawa Hall on Monday night. For the young TMC musicians led by contemporary music specialist Gemma New, a TMC Conducting Fellow, the performance was a triumph.

After a stormy orchestral prelude compared by the composer to a TV series theme, the music devolves into a mysterious interlude of tolling bells and a wind machine. That's followed by an outburst featuring two percussionists shaking maracas at the audience on opposite sides of the stage, an expression of anger, not festivity, as Gandolfi has explained, intended to shock the audience into "waking the (eff) up."

Early on, conveying casual Americana, Gandolfi sets catchphrases such as "break a leg" "pie in the sky," "pipe dream" and "face the music" — 38 in all — in a cacophonous sequence reflecting a sardonic take on everyday folks' vocabulary.

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Most of "In America" expresses indignation, quiet desperation and barely-contained rage. Included is the following, adapted from Baltimore Sun journalist H.L. Mencken's 1920 essay; "On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." As written by Mencken, the phrase is "a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron."

But Gandolfi doesn't pull any punches, as the singers declaim that "Each of you must speak, must speak" (Twain), "Now is the time to make real the promises (Dr. King), "Stand for something, or you will fall for anything" (Rosa Parks) and "Fight for your life, before it's someone else's job" (Emma Gonzalez) along with many more pleas for justice and tolerance. The orchestra matches the libretto, as Gandolfi creates a tableau of wit, ferocity, mourning and, ultimately, a ghostly sequence of glissandos (strings sliding upward and downward in pitch).

The six vocalists, all TMC Fellows, delivered the texts with commitment and passion. Especially notable were soprano Elena Villalon and mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck, joined by mezzo Olivia Cosio, tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole, baritone Edward Vogel and bass-baritone William Socolof. Under Ms. New's highly capable leadership, the orchestra performed with near-flawless precision and dedication to Gandolfi's cry from the heart.

"In America" is worth repeated hearing as a landmark American masterpiece by one of our most important living composers.

Opening the evening, TMC Conducting Fellow Yu An Chang led Bernstein's "choreographic essay for orchestra" based on his ballet "Facsimile," a 1946 work dedicated to ballet master Jerome Robbins. Unaccountably neglected over the years, the score is vintage Lenny — high-energy, ardent, meditative, Coplandesque, with prominent flute, oboe and piano solos. The TMC Orchestra performed it with authoritative, exuberant spirit.

Copland's Third, conducted by Bernstein as his final performance with the TMC musicians in August 1990, eight weeks before his death, may well be the Great American Symphony. Completed in 1945 on a BSO commission from Serge Koussevitzky as the U.S. celebrated the World War II Allied victory, the final movement incorporates and elaborates upon the well-known Fanfare for the Common Man, composed three years earlier.

An affirmative piece intended to reflect the nation's euphoria, the symphony was given the full-on treatment by the TMCO led by Stefan Asbury, on the faculty since 1995 as a mentor to young conductors and orchestral players. Impressively bold, highlighted by moments of transcendental nostalgia for the old American West, the performance served as a fitting tribute to both Bernstein and Copland, friends and collaborators who embodied the best of American music during much of the 20th century.


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