Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: a History of Innovation

June in Buffalo welcomes back the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, who will close the 2017 festival with a full concert of works by faculty composers. The program includes David Dzubay’s Siren Song, Jeffrey Mumford’s verdant and shimmering air: four views of a reflected forest, and two works by June in Buffalo director David Felder, Incendio and Canzona. Canzona is a new work for brass ensemble receiving its world premiere on the festival—profiled in a past post in this publication.

For much of its history, the orchestra has been renowned for its programming of new music.
The orchestra’s first recording (1946) was the world premiere recording of the then-contemporary Symphony no. 7 by Dmitri Shostakovich, opened the door to later engagement with more radical works. Follwoing the appointment of Lukas Foss as music director in 1963, new music played a central role in the orchestra’s programming. Foss began by introducing early 20th-century repertoire such as Ives’s The Unanswered Question and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and soon after programmed the most radical orchestral works of the post-WWII era, including the US premiere of Stockhausen’s Momente and works by Berio, Cage, Carter, Ligeti, Nono, Penderecki, Takahashi, Xenakis, and Foss himself, some of which were recorded on the high profile label Nonesuch Records.

Not only did concerts include cutting-edge music, but the orchestra also pioneered programming frameworks that moved beyond numerous conventions of orchestral concert programs. Concerts often departed from the overture-concerto-symphony format, sometimes including 5-6 works. Programs often included new music, as well as early music, non-Western music, and rock alongside canonical classical works, often in combinations revealing unexpected resonances—as in a 1966 concert juxtaposing two movements of a Mahler symphony with Webern songs and Webern’s orchestrations of Schubert songs. Other concerts consisted entirely of new music, such as a 1965 concert featured works by Varèse, Boulez, Penderecki, Kilar, and Kagel (then Slee Professor at the University at Buffalo (UB)), and a 1970 event featuring the Grateful Dead together with orchestral works by Foss (with laser show), Cage, and (a rock-ified version of) Bach. Concerts frequently featured leading new music performers as guest soloists and ensembles; the Creative Associates of UB’s Center for Creative and Performing Arts, where Foss taught, were regular guests.

Michael Tilson Thomas, now renowned for his ambitious new music projects as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, took over as music director in 1971. He continued many of Foss’s programming priorities, while strongly emphasizing the performance of works by American experimental composers (who would later be the center of his acclaimed “American Mavericks” series). The emphasis upon American experimentalists coincided conveniently with Morton Feldman’s arrival at UB in 1972, leading the BPO to premiere two of his works, The Viola in My Life IV (itself on a remarkable marathon program that also contained Berio’s Epifanie, Cage’s Variations IV, a Charpentier Mass, and Debussy’s Rhapsody) and Voices and Instruments II. Tilson-Thomas also welcomed works that explored the absurd, the theatrical, and blurred distinctions between performance and audience, as in a 1972 program that featured Berio’s Recital I (for Cathy) and David Bedford’s controversial With 100 Kazoos for Ensemble and Audience.

Continuing the close relationship between the BPO and UB cultivated by Lukas Foss, the BPO has been regularly featured at June in Buffalo. In recent years, June in Buffalo has provided an important outlet for the orchestra’s new music programming, as detailed in a past post from this publication. A further link between the orchestra and UB is David Felder, UB Distinguished Professor and June in Buffalo Director, who was the BPO’s Meet the Composer Composer-in-Residence from 1992-96. In addition to the new work to be premiered on this year’s festival, he is currently at work on a new work for the orchestra to be premiered in 2018.

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