During this tumultuous time in our country, so many issues return to ask the question: who exactly, are the “people” to which the preamble of our Constitution refers? Dan Turkos, a bassist in the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, sought to define this group on Friday evening through a collaborative concert with the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, Arcana New Music Ensemble, Bowerbird, and the Mighty Writers program. Turkos described seeing a mural peaking out beneath the overpass to 676 on his commute which inspired him to curate this special program:
“…My concept for We the People is not patriotic, as many will initially recall this phrase as the opening words to the Constitution of the United States. My thought was to celebrate the differences we, as people, share. Our differences are what make a community and a country, and our city of Philadelphia inspired me.”
The Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is an ensemble that embraces differences of style, having performed contemporary improvisation, symphonic music, chamber music, rock, bluegrass, and jazz on previous programs. Their programs are offered free of charge at the historic Church of the Advocate, and they work to build special connections to the Philadelphia community by providing educational opportunities for diverse groups of students and presenting the works of local composers. Though the majority of musicians in the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra were locally trained at Temple University, they have frequent guest artists from other music ensembles in and around Philadelphia. For this program, Prometheus Chamber Orchestra joined with Bowerbird, a non-profit organization that shares music, dance, film, and related art forms across the region, and the Arcana New Music Ensemble, a group dedicated to presenting interesting, beautiful, and unconventional music.
The first piece on the program was Suite in Bb Major “Les Nations” TWV 55:35 by Georg Philipp Telemann, a work that caricatured different cities, cultures, and everyday life through its nine movements. Perhaps 18th-century audiences understood the musical distinctions Telemann made between Turkish, Swiss, Portuguese, Russian (Les Moscovites) styles, but such references were too difficult for me to discern and digest at first hear. Much more entertaining was concertmistress and guest artist Mandy Wolman’s skillful leadership. A violinist in Tempesta di Mare, Wolman was sought for her expertise in Baroque style and practices, and she was tasked with realizing Telemann’s music in an appropriate style despite the use of modern French bows. What unity of phrase, breath, and intonation her leadership inspired! There was great energy and simplicity throughout the work that made it both aurally and visually engaging.
The transition of personnel following the Telemann was accompanied by a speaker and two spoken word performances. Prometheus violist Veronica Jurkiewicz thanked their hosts at the Church of the Advocate and directed the audience’s attention to word associations and posters hanging around the gym that were created by students and participants in the Mighty Writers project who had attended a preview performance earlier in the week. Someone associated with the youth programs at the Church of the Advocate performed parts of an original rap inspired by the loss of his mother at a young age, and another performed a monologue from a play entitled Black Jesus.
Worker’s Union by Louis Andriessen was the next piece on the program. This 1975 composition is notated as a single part that can be played by any kind of instrument, melodic or percussive, and we watched as a bassoon, electric guitar, trombone, horn, and other non-bowed strings were added to the ensemble. The sheet music did not notate pitch in a traditional way, and musicians interpreted intervals relative to a single horizontal line which represented their instrument’s middle register. About this piece, the program stated: “Noisy, hypnotic, and powerfully dramatic, Worker’s Union is a parable for political organizing: in the composer’s words, ‘Only if every player plays with the intention that their part is essential will the work succeed.’”
Having never heard this piece — or any by Dutch composer Andriessen — I wasn’t sure what to expect. Noisy and hypnotic and, dare I say clamorous, it certainly was, but I felt none of the drama, strife, or struggle that I expected from the name of this piece. To say that it contrasted the Telemann suite in every way is both a comment on the composition and the performance itself. Dissonance and twitchy rhythms assault the audience with a wash of sound, but if anything else was discussed in the rehearsal it failed to come through in performance. Heads were buried in the giant — and creatively crafted — scores, but if not for somewhat pulsating body movements it would be hard to tell that the musicians knew that they were playing with so many other colleagues. It seemed like every bow stroke and turn of phrase was considered in preparing to perform the Telemann Suite, and I wonder if the Andriessen would’ve felt more edgy and intense with similar attention to detail.
The concert concluded with nine movements from Apartment House 1776 by John Cage, a work commissioned for the American Bicentennial that embodied his idea of “multiplicity of centers.” Cage altered 44 pieces of four-part choral music by William Billings and other early American composers and used four solo voices, each representing a different tradition in the United States: Protestant, Sephardic, Native American, and African American. Prometheus Chamber Ensemble selected Funeral Anthem, Tyndale, Worchester, O Give Thanks, Rapture (XXV), Tempest, Weymouth, Rapture (Harmony XLII), and Bloomfield for this concert and featured a singer and flutist. During this final portion of the concert the lights in the gym were dimmed and slides of different murals from around Philadelphia were projected against the back wall. Mighty Writers North program director Shamira O’Neal had developed an entire instructional unit entitled “We The People” as part of Prometheus’s first collaboration with their program, and the audience was able to read statements about interpreting the United States Constitution as this last work was performed.
John Cage built silence into Apartment House 1776 which broke up the bonds of harmony that had existed in the original compositions. Separating individual tones and chords by silence seemed like he was placing a greater importance on the sounds themselves than their relationships to each other, perhaps linking to the theme of this concert by comparing sounds to the value of individuals within their own families and communities instead of that individual’s usefulness on a larger political or economic spectrum.
Unfortunately, the performance of this work created connections between the tones through silences that were energized by movement and visual pulse. Being able to see the musicians physically counting through rests with pulsing body movements and metered breath detracted from the emotional impact of this work, and an internalized tempo would’ve been preferable. This was not the primary flaw in this particular performance of Apartment House 1776 because such a distraction could be abated by gazing at the mural projection instead of the instrumental performers. Unforgivable and impossible to ignore was the poor intonation of the guest flutist whose line grated with the resonant chords and pleasant timbre of the strings and vocalist. Prior to the movement with extended flute, violin, and cello soloists, the flute’s musical line had not been quite as prominent, and the Prometheus musicians did well to stand their harmonic ground. However, a noticeable derailment occurred at this mid-way point and the ensemble could not recover. In a performance of a work by a composer with such high standards for precision, it is disappointing that one instrumentalist could exert such a negative influence.
Some things are unavoidable when exploring new and unfamiliar music, playing with musicians of different skill levels, and preparing for a public performance on a tight schedule, and all things considered, the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra does a fantastic job of bringing string music to underserved communities. Their enthusiasm for community connections and personal exploration of style is apparent in each performance offered, and that they do not benefit financially from ticket sales and often have to overlook sub-par acoustics, beeping door sensors, disruptive audiences, and other distractions is important to note. The concert performed in reverse (Cage — Andriessen — Telemann) may have had a stronger impact and clearer message, but I appreciate the way that individuals in the organization take charge and present music in a way that is meaningful to them.