Newly commissioned ASO concerto finds life elsewhere

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Given the reams of new music commissioned and premiered each season by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the question arises as to whether the pieces are performed again. The question itself can open a philosophical discussion about the relative importance of an enduring classical repertoire and the value of providing opportunities for young artists. But it’s always fair to ask, has anyone else heard of this stuff before? And where does it go from here?

It is a pleasure to announce that a recent commission from ASO, Viet Cuong’s brilliant and memorable percussion quartet concerto “Re (new) al” has received two dozen performances since its debut by the Dogs of Desire at the 2017 American Music Festival at EMPAC. Inspired by renewable energy sources and commissioned by GE Renewable Energy, the piece became the engine of the 31-year-old composer’s rapid success. ASO’s continuing relationship with him continues on Saturday, November 13 at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall with the performance of his “Trees for Next Week”.

“Re (new) al” stood out so well at the 2017 festival that Miller requested an extended version for the full ASO and debuted it on the opening night of the 2018-19 season at the Palace Theater. Cuong went on to make additional versions of the piece for large and small fanfares which were commissioned by a consortium of over 20 ensembles.

So yes, here is at least one ASO commission that gets executed over and over again. The play has become a calling card for Cuong, who has just completed his college education and already has a backlog of orders that will keep him busy for the next three to four years. This is a situation that a composer of any age would appreciate.

“You can have rooms with that many stars aligned and with ‘Re (new) al’ it all worked,” Cuong said. “I am so proud of this piece. It’s a play I wanted to write and it resonated. Sometimes you never get the chance to do it.

The composer went to the well once again with “Re (new) al”, using it as the subject of his doctorate. thesis at Princeton. On its website (vietcuongmusic.com), there is a detailed description, perhaps taken from the thesis, of how hydro, wind and solar energies inspired the three movements and its clever choreography for percussionists.

Cuong’s music is good-natured and sympathetic without worrying about cheap feelings. There’s an obvious sense of humor at work, although he mostly avoids outright jokes like LeRoy Anderson and Peter Schickele (PDQ Bach). The best description that comes to mind, and Cuong himself uses it in his biographical blurb, is “whimsical.”

Cuong points to Poulenc as another composer who used humor in subtle and sometimes ironic ways. When asked if he was a funny guy in everyday life, Cuong hesitated and replied that he wasn’t the type to make jokes, but that he could every once in a while. make their partner and friends laugh.

“Growing up, I was shy and not very expressive and felt that I didn’t fit in, especially in college. Then I joined the band in high school and the music was where I felt the safest, ”said Cuong, who was born in California and raised in Marietta, a town on the outskirts of Atlanta. . Young musician, he plays the piano, percussion and clarinet. “I don’t know what would have become of me without a band in high school.”

Music by living composers is not a rarity for bands, so Cuong got to see how being a professional songwriter could be a possibility for him. He also discovered that writing music was a way to express yourself in new ways. It became more dramatic after his registration. “In college, I flourished as a composer. My first night in a dormitory, I wrote completely different music than in high school, ”he said.

Cuong also came out as gay, although it wasn’t with a dramatic statement. “Once at university, I had just graduated, no ceremony. Other students probably thought I had been out my whole life. It went hand in hand with my music, ”he said.

Historic gains in women’s and gay rights were the theme of ASO’s 2019 festival, and an evening of Dogs of Desire premieres featured a series of plays too reliant on political harangues. In contrast, Cuong did not feel the need for explanation or justification. His contribution, “Transfigured”, a tribute to the Stonewall uprising, was a bright and charming (and wordless) essay made all the more eloquent by the accompaniment of a small modern dance ensemble.

Besides fantasy, Cuong’s music can be disorienting, not so shocking as like visiting unknown realms. This is the case with “Extra (ordinarily) Fancy”, a concerto for two oboes that ASO performed during last year’s online season. It is as if a baroque harpsichord and string ensemble is visited by aliens who join in the music with some sort of weird squealing instruments.

This effect is the result of alternate fingerings on the oboe, a technique known as multiphonic. Cuong studied and deployed multiphonics until a farewell and he lives up to describing them as akin to “the sound that novice oboists accidentally make”.

Listeners will encounter more unexpected sounds and playful sensibility in ASO’s upcoming Cuong commission, “Submarine”. The secondary title of the work is Concerto for orchestra, but expect nothing from Bartok’s scale. The piece will be for orchestra of standard size and will last 20 minutes. As the title suggests, the concept is an immersed orchestra. Cuong describes it as “the underwater life yet to be discovered” and says he “explores the orchestra in a way I have never done before”.


The piece, due out next season, was originally announced as part of the upcoming concert, but Cuong has requested an extension following the death of his 77-year-old father this summer. He and his partner were helping his parents move from Georgia to Nevada when his father passed away. A week after the funeral, Cuong got back to packing up his childhood home.

“I don’t think I will ever feel the same way and I might not be able to work for a while. He was one of my biggest fans and he’ll never hear another song from me, ”Cuong said. His parents were immigrants from Vietnam with a pragmatic mindset and they passed on their cultural heritage to their two boys. Cuong’s piece “Thu Dieu” for soprano and ensemble is a setting to music of a classical Vietnamese poem and his father served as an advisor during the composition about five years ago.

Albany Symphony Orchestra

In addition to Viet Cuong’s “Trees for Next Week”, the program features soloist Shai Wosner in Brahms’ First Piano Concerto and Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle.

When: 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 13

Where: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 Second Street, Troy.

Tickets: $ 20- $ 62. Call 518-694-3300 or visit: albanysymphony.com/


“Vietnamese was my mother tongue but I forgot how to speak it. He helped me make sure I was preparing the room correctly. Vietnamese is a tonal language, so some words have to have some form, ascending or descending, ”he said. Cuong played a recording of “Thu Dieu” for his father during his final hours on a fan. A new orchestral version of the piece premiered last week by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie.

Cuong and his partner, who is a psychiatrist, recently moved to Orange County, California. Along with that stack of commissions, Cuong is now part of the faculty at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and is in the midst of a three-year residency with the California Symphony, based in the Bay Area.

“Next Week’s Trees” is the first fruit of Cuong’s collaboration with this orchestra and ASO premieres on the east coast. A reflection on the era of COVID, it was inspired by Mary Oliver’s poem “Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next Days and Weeks”.

“The poem reflects on the future, how nothing is guaranteed, but we still have this hope for the inevitable, that we will see the sun come up and the trees will always be there,” Cuong said. “The play was written during COVID, when everything we were looking forward to was not happening. I tried to capture this feeling in a piece of music.

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.


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