by Mike Telin
What does Akron sound like to you? This is the question the Akron Symphony Orchestra and composer Clint Needham asked when they invited Akron area residents to download a smartphone app and upload their recordings to the Sounds of Akron website from late last spring through the fall. Those sounds became the inspiration for Needham’s imaginative new work, Sounds of Akron: City Meets Symphony, which received its premiere by the Akron Symphony under the direction of Christopher Wilkins on April 16 at E.J. Thomas Hall.
The project is the brainchild of composer and MIT Media Lab professor Tod Machover, who had previously guided similar collaborations in Edinburgh, Scotland; Perth, Australia; and Toronto. With funding from the Knight Foundation, Machover took the project to Detroit. Akron is the second U.S. city to be invited by the Foundation to participate. (Read the backstory here.) Since Machover was not available for the Akron project, the ASO made the wise decision to enlist the creative prowess of Clint Needham.
Scored for large orchestra, the 30-minute electroacoustic composition brilliantly unfolds as a musical guided tour of the Akron area. Throughout, Needham brilliantly weaves recordings of industry, traffic, downtown sounds, people in their backyards playing with children on squeaky swing sets, and nature sounds from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park into the alluring and richly hued orchestral sound palette. Needham also incorporates mini-compositions — submitted as cryptograms based on the Akron Symphony name — into his own original material.
What makes Needham’s writing so attractive is that each section flows seamlessly from one to the other. He cleverly introduces Amazing Grace in the orchestra before a recording is heard of the Gospel Meets Symphony Chorus riffing on the famous tune. And the section featuring steel drums is anticipated in the orchestra before the drums play. When the Miller South Middle School Steel Pan Ensemble had their moment in the sun, they played with precision and sensitivity. The tribute to Akron’s rock scene was deftly performed by electric guitarist Dan Flowers.
The orchestra sounded wonderful as Wilkins led a tight performance that gave the work’s many lyrical lines ample room to breathe. As much as Sounds of Akron: City Meets Symphony is ASO’s tribute to the people of Akron, the very large audience responded with their own thank-you in a heartfelt ovation.
The first half of the concert was devoted to a single work, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. A minute into the piece, Christopher Wilkins surprised the audience by signaling for the orchestra to stop playing. He turned to the audience and said that composers have always been inspired by their surroundings. Using orchestral examples, he demonstrated how Mahler’s writing in each movement was influenced by the sounds of nature.
Conducting from memory, Wilkins drew a full-bodied sound from the players. There were many outstanding section and individual solos of note including Kyra Kester, flute, Cynthia Warren, oboe, Kristina Belisle Jones and Heidi Peck, clarinets, and Meghan Guegold, horn. Concertmaster Clement Luu sounded superb, especially during the second movement’s thorny solos. As beautiful as the playing was, the first three movements were surprisingly similar in tempo and character — their many sudden mood changes smoothed over.
All that quickly changed in the fourth movement with the arrival of the excellent soprano Christine Brandes. Singing with a pure, focused tone that projected wonderfully into the hall, Brandes seized control of the tempos, bringing a youthful buoyancy to the song Das himmlische Leben. Wilkins and the orchestra responded in kind, playing with crisp articulations and wide-swinging mood changes. Brandes and the ASO made an electrifying team.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com May 10, 2016.
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