After a successful debut concert last April, the Nu Deco Ensemble opened its first full season of contemporary music programs Friday night. The chamber orchestra draws a youthful, hip audience, and the three-sided seating of the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse in Miami’s Wynwood cultural district makes the interaction between audience and performers up close and intimate.
As at the group’s initial concert, the program consisted of four short works by contemporary composers and a pop-oriented second half. Two scores for small instrumental forces were the evening’s most rewarding offerings. Marc Mellits’ 15-minute Octet was the longest piece, assayed by eight string players sans conductor.
A memorable central movement opened with soft tremolos and hazy harmonics, leading to an ascending melodic pattern that was both soaring and sensuous. The energetic outer movements channel minimalism and bluegrass fiddling in equal measure, with the two cellists hitting the wood of their instruments for extra rhythmic bounce. Led by concertmaster Alexander Zhuk, the players produced a full-bodied stream of tone and dazzling precision, even at the most breathless pace.
Marcos Balter’s Bladed Stance is a five-minute, trancelike soundscape in which the chirpings of woodwinds coalesce into fragmentary melodies. Balter’s restrained fusing of gorgeous string textures with the repetitive wind figures proved entrancing, and conductor Jacomo Bairos brought out the subtle instrumental details effectively.
Urban Sprawl by Clint Needham is the type of boisterous, easy-to-digest contemporary piece that conductors like to program as an opener at symphony concerts. New Orleans-style jazz propels the whirling score of this well-crafted overture. Craig Morris’ wailing trumpet and the full-throttle percussion section (which whistled and clapped in addition to playing their instruments) had a field day with this brassy vignette.
Draw Me the Sun by jazz trumpeter Greg Simon is an essay in Copland-esque Americana. With marimba and guitar adding instrumental spice, Simon’s orchestration was vivid and colorful, though the concluding section seemed more than slightly similar to Copland’s Outdoor Overture. The problem with ersatz Copland is that it seems like a blurred carbon copy of the authentic article, and Simon’s work does not avoid that pitfall. Bairos led a rousing and exuberant performance with standout playing by Morris on trumpet and Maciej Pietraszko on trombone.
Following intermission, Miami-based pop singer Brika offered three numbers that explored angst, heartbreak and defiance. With a deep, husky voice and cool manner, Brika’s vocal styling falls somewhere between jazz and Latin pop. She is certainly a talented and appealing performer. Unlike the orchestration for the pop duo Afrobeta at the orchestra’s debut concert, which seemed merely pasted on, the charts for Brika utilized rich string textures and glowing wind and brass sonorities effectively with a swinging percussion section.
Co-artistic director Sam Hyken’s LCD Soundsystem Symphonic Suite brought the concert to an entertaining conclusion. Hyken’s skilled arrangements combine rock with witty allusions to classical minimalism. Annabelle Inhyung Hwang’s soulful, mellow clarinet solos stood out among the excellent ensemble playing.
The Nu Deco Ensemble is an important addition to South Florida’s contemporary music scene. The group would do well to program longer, more complex scores and explore the rich legacy of works for small ensemble by 20th century composers. If this group is truly a “21st century orchestra” as its logo claims, then its directors should plan more programming in the future that rewards an attention span longer than that of someone clicking through TV channels.
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