As a European musician setting out to assemble an all-American concert program, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia music director Dirk Brosse did what Americans do in Europe: He got carried away.
His Sounds of America program on Sunday at the Kimmel Center wasn't overly long as much as it was unduly eventful, a case of appetite outstripping practicality, though the reward was a 70-year span of music, most of it new to the audience. Some of the pieces covered similar emotional territory: I would've chosen between John Corigliano's 1976 Voyage (a congenial work written before the composer found his true voice) and Eric Whitacre's 2000 October (which is a pleasant mood piece and little else).
And as much as I loved the extended cello solo (played by Glenn Fischbach) in Austin Wintory's Apotheosis, taken from his score for the video game Journey, dropping it might've made more rehearsal time for the larger pieces on the program. Walter Piston's excellent 1941 Sinfonietta -- with its own flinty take on Stravinskian neo-classicism -- got the short end of the stick, both technically and emotionally. That wasn't right.
The program was solidly anchored by two recently written violin/orchestral works, both quite fine and viable for mainstream symphonic programs in their own specific ways.
Daron Hagen's Songbook: Concerto for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion does many of the things a concerto should do, happily not in the typical places or in the usual ways. Though thematically based on pre-existing songs, some with Irish roots, no background is needed to appreciate the piece's restless sense of invention and soaring lyricism.
Much of it was like Chausson's Poeme filtered through a 21st-century mind, with descriptive antiphonal snare drum solos and ghostly marimba effects. The only tune I immediately picked out was "Amazing Grace" (how could you not?), artfully changed to suit the larger purpose of the piece. No, Songbook didn't depend on its songs for its effect, though the fourth movement owes a debt to Bernstein's Serenade, whose high spirits were breezily recalled amid some high-velocity pyrotechnics for the soloist.
Kenneth Fuchs's American Rhapsody was what the title claimed, though clearly from a more southern climate. The piece had no claims to being a concerto. It was in no hurry to get to where it was going -- it was a bit sprawling, actually -- but was content to spin out ecstatic melodies for the violin soloist amid much orchestral vegetation. Exotic wind solos felt Amazonian -- not unlike the late (and much-missed) Mexican composer Daniel Catan.
The soloist for both was Michael Ludwig, a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra who decamped to the Buffalo Philharmonic and expanded his solo activities to include a number of recordings and premieres of new works. He couldn't have been a more capable messenger of these pieces, able to deliver plenty of heat for Hagen and inviting repose for Fuchs.
Brosse was plenty supportive. You always understood what the piece was saying, though the Chamber Orchestra still needed polish.