Reviews: In two New York City performances last week, conductor-less Portland-based string ensemble Palaver Strings and NYC’s own American Composers Orchestra respectively offered two very different nights of music as adventurous and enthusiastically received as any weekend production in the city.

credit: Palaver Strings

Brooklyn new music institution National Sawdust played host to Wednesday’s March 15 show titled joy. The name was apt; from the moment Palaver Strings and double bass soloist Kebra Seyoun-Charles began filing on stage in their appropriately diverse and festive attire, the packed audience received them with a roar of applause. Each work was announced from the stage, with a QR code-accessible document simply noting the themes of the program. Much of the show would be either improvised or performed by memory in an effort to further immerse listeners, as made clear when Seyoun-Charles immediately launched into an extended solo on Feeling Good, a musical-theatre -tune-turned-jazz-standard by the illustrious Nina Simone. Arranged by Seyoun-Charles specifically for this performance, Feeling Good was soon taken up by the full ensemble in blues and Bachian reworkings; slow, then fast, revealing the arrangement to be, unexpectedly, a French overture. (Simone’s own approach to the piano often incorporated Classical and Baroque elements, an often-overlooked element of her musicality).

Between works, Palaver Strings members served double-duty as emcees; cellists Nate Taylor, Kamyron Williams, bassist Nate Martin and Seyoun-Charles themself each took a turn at the mic to shed further light on each part of the program. Taylor noted that Palaver Strings’ take on the next work, Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Bela Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, was informed by Bartok’s own field recordings of musicians from Transylvania. The resulting arrangement by Alex Goodin highlighted both the auditory lessons learned (the approach to trills was, in a word, inspired) and the visual: melodies were passed to one solo musician after another, bringing to mind an image of ferociously dueling fiddlers.

The heart of the program lay in John B. Hodges’ three-movement bass concerto Raise Hymn, Praise Shout, a work inspired by the tradition of lined hymns — where a soloist in a church introduces a hymn, leads the congregation through it, then improvises over the congregation’s own voices — predominantly known in the US via the Black Baptist tradition. Seyoun-Charles was an ideal protagonist for this work; their dramaturgical sense shone in the extended cadenzas, which transcended mere virtuosity in favor of inventive narrative.

Palaver Strings moved to lightness for the rest of the program; their take on Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite was tidy and particularly showcased their dynamic control. Their closing set, three fiddle tunes co-composed by Palaver Strings violist Elizabeth Moore and Irish fiddler/classical violinist Liz Knowles (Treehouse, Jig for John #2, and Fore Street) and played attacca, was perfectly at home in this lively program. Special mention must be made of violinist Teagan Faran, whose solos brought the house down, and of Moore’s own commanding sound.

Across the East River, the American Composers Orchestra returned to Zankel Hall on Thursday March 16 for a joyful show of their own. Celebrating Grammy-nominated violinist/composer Curtis Stewart’s first outing as Artistic Director, the orchestra continued its tradition of embracing an expansive vision of orchestral composition in highlighting guitarist/composer Kaki King’s multimedia work Modern Yesterdays (which lent its name to the whole concert), with world-first orchestrations commissioned from fellow guitarist/composer D. J. Sparr. Preceding this five-movement suite were three works of increasing length — Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers, the only work not to be a premiere on the program, Ellen Reid’s Floodplain, receiving its East Coast premiere, and Carlos Bandera’s Materia Prima, receiving its world premiere after a six year gestation.

credit: American Composers Orchestra

Inspired by a passage from Homer’s Iliad and copied by Ludwig van Beethoven into his journal in 1815, Simon’s work hit the ground running and never let up. The orchestra took on this piece, the most densely written of the three, with aplomb. Significantly more atmospheric were the Reid and Bandera, which both drew inspiration from elements of water — in Floodplain, its destroying and renewing characteristics, and in Materia Prima, it being the probable first home of life. In the Reid, one occasionally wished for more low string players to cover divisi parts, although commanding solos from concertmaster Ilmar Gavilan and principal cellist Eugene Moy made any negativity an afterthought. Materia Prima, by far the longest of the trio, grew out of a clash between the notes A and Bb that could have been mistaken for an orchestral re-tuning, and offered a hint of spectralism in the midst of an otherwise solidly tonal program. Individual divisi parts in the strings offered diverse sonorities in a work built in large part on timbral development.

Modern Yesterdays indeed could only be a project of the current time. Accompanying (or perhaps accompanied by) jump-cuts and overlays of visuals of body parts and the natural world projected onto the back of Zankel Hall and on King’s otherwise entirely-white guitar, the five movements foregrounded the composer as soloist. Her virtuosity was on full display, particularly in the moto perpetuo writing of the first movement. Throughout, Sparr’s orchestrations delighted, particularly in moments of intriguing doublings (percussion and inside-the-piano glissandos being a clear winner in that regard). Particularly impactful — if somewhat unsettling — was the fourth movement, where what appeared to be an endoscopy played out with voiceovers from a simulated therapy session cut and screwed to create an emotional journey. The fifth movement followed with fire — both in the projections and in the playing, with an uptempo minor key country-tinged melody passed around to a grand tutti ending. In a city still dealing with the effects of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial inequity, this otherwise open-ended piece read as personal, and if the cheering response was anything to go by, it had found the right audience.