July 24, 2019

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s Cone Institute Returns to Princeton

By Nancy Plum

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra spent last week in Princeton coaching and guiding four contemporary composers in an immersive laboratory experience through which the talented participants received musical and practical feedback about their pieces, composing for a symphonic orchestra, and getting music published and performed in today’s market. Dichotomy, conflict, and ultimate hope seemed to be the overriding themes of the pieces resulting from this year’s Edward T. Cone Composition Institute, as these works were presented in a concert entitled Scores last Saturday night at Richardson Auditorium. Led by Romanian conductor Cristian Macelaru, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed four works of the Cone Institute’s composers, along with an East Coast premiere of Institute director and Princeton University professor Steven Mackey.

Puerto Rican composer and conductor Iván Enrique Rodríguez has focused his most recent works on social justice and activism. A Metaphor for Power, which received its world premiere in Saturday night’s performance, has been characterized as centered on “the current Latinx experience,” as well as ongoing equality issues in the United States. Quoting from the “Preamble” of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Rodríguez described his piece as a “musical essay that attempts to address the present turbulence of ideologies, dreams, and hard-hitting realities.”

A Metaphor for Power began with passages of musical chaos suggesting the melting pot of individuals this country has become over the centuries. Macelaru controlled the orchestral sound well, as the musical palette became more spacious, referencing America with snippets of patriotic songs. The Orchestra effectively maintained dramatic tension, as a closing quote from the “Star-Spangled Banner” indicated that perhaps Rodríguez’s questions about equality and social justice remained unanswered.

The music of Los Angeles-based Dan Caputo has explored the ways detailed aural textures and curious musical behaviors can potentially elicit complex psychological responses. In the composer’s own words, his pieces “concern themselves with dichotomies, or pairs of ideas that push and pull against each other.” Caputo’s Liminal explored the concept of “in-betweenness, much like the time between wakefulness and sleep,” and the way thoughts behave while a person is trying to fall asleep. Within Liminal, Caputo treated “one singular thought” motivically, often accompanied by the omnipresent sounds heard during a sleepless night. The Orchestra’s performance of Liminal was aided by unusual percussive effects, including creating sound from what looked like plastic bags.

Orchestral and film composer Patrick O’Malley describes his compositional approach as inspired by mysterious dichotomies in nature and art, and considers the listener’s imagination as a key component to a composition’s construction. O’Malley’s Rest and Restless, originally composed as a solo for double bass, also explored the idea of dichotomy, creating a musical “emotional landscape” in which moods alternate. O’Malley’s full orchestration of his initial piece has brought a rich luster to the work, adding breadth and color to the original double bass lines. Melodic effect was found in Rest and Restless through elegant instrumental solos, including from English hornist Andrew Adelson.

Korean-American composer, vocalist and sound artist Bora Yoon is known for her use of unconventional instruments and musical technology in her music and for fusing “classical, electronic, and cultural intersections using elements from a variety of cultures and centuries to formulate a storytelling through music and song.” Yoon described the two-movement The Wind of Two Koreas as inspired by both the history of a divided Korea and the early orchestral works of Igor Stravinsky and his connection with Russian folklore and cultural mythology. Through this piece, Yoon has sought to depict how a culture has been split apart, and with the incorporation of well-known Korean folk tunes, how music has changed people.

The influence of Stravinsky could definitely be heard in the driving lower strings in the first movement with martial passages conveying the militarism of Korea’s history. Yoon’s graceful combination of harp and flute in the second movement took the audience to a spacious Asian garden, and instrumental solos from bassoon and horn added a bit of weight to the musical palette. Like the other pieces on Saturday night’s program, The Wind of Two Koreas ended in hope, depicting a present culture in a country trying to unify.

Steven Mackey’s works are well-known throughout the world, and the annual Cone Institute concert traditionally closes with a piece by this Princeton professor, paying homage to his directorship of this pioneering musical workshop. Mackey composed Portals, Scenes and Celebrations in 2018 to celebrate the retirement of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas from the San Francisco Symphony. The work was constructed of five movements connected by portals in the time/space continuum, linked by simple melodies and many instrumental solos throughout the Orchestra. This was clear from the opening trombone solo, answered by clarinet, and unusual percussion scoring, including an instrumentalist playing an open glass bottle. The musical atmosphere was also marked by unusual scoring for the trombones and quick-fingered violin solo work from concertmaster Brennan Sweet.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra created the Cone Institute as a laboratory for the creative process and to give up-and-coming composers the opportunity to collaborate with an Orchestra of this size and level. The composers in this year’s Institute very much reflect our current times, creating works with lasting power and taking Edward T. Cone’s legacy with them from Princeton throughout the world.