NORMAN — The Norman Philharmonic opened its third season with a daring concert featuring the work of visiting composer John Mackey. The 39-year-old composer’s works have been performed everywhere from the Sydney Opera House to Carnegie Hall. On Sunday his atypical harmonies and pulsing rhythms filled the Nancy O’Brian Performing Arts Center.
“I think it’s a symbol of what’s happening in America. I mean, to be a contemporary composer a few decades ago would be the kiss of death. You would never be heard,” OU music professor William Wakefield said.
Things are changing. Mackey and composers like him are finding more commissions and eager audiences and groups like the Norman Philharmonic are bringing adventurous contemporary American music to the masses.
Then, there’s social media. Mackey uses it to engage his fans and get feedback, sometimes even advice.
“To me it’s fun. I enjoy putting stuff online and I think it really helps the audience,” Mackey said. “I can talk about a piece as I’m writing it and if I have a question ... ‘Can the French horn play with this kind of mute in this register? Would that sound good?’ And I can put that question on Facebook and I’ll get 150 comments from all these people. They’re usually students and then they feel vested in the creation of the work that I’m writing. They’re connected, So when that piece is done, they want to hear it. They want to look at the score,” he said.
“It’s a big thing. I had a piece I’d been working on for a month and I started putting things on facebook a couple of weeks ago. I put a midi mock-up on Soundcloud and 1,800 people listened to it the first day. It’s a really good way to get help and also generate interest in the piece.”
ORU music composition student Kevin Day is one of his online followers. He drove from Tulsa to see his favorite composer.
“When I heard he was coming so close, I knew I had to try and meet him,” Day said. “The chaos and the way he puts clashing notes together ... It’s not typical, but it’s really cool.”
He’s direct with his fans and his music, with score direction notes like “I want the bass drum player to crescendo until the mallet snaps.”
The effect is visceral and dramatic, almost reminiscent of a film score.
The concert began with Gould’s familiar “American Salute,” followed by Haydn’s “Sinfonia Concertante.”
Then things took off with Mackey’s trombone concerto “Harvest.”
The trombone comes to life as the Greek god Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine, dancing atop eerie woodwinds and droning drums and mixed meter, rising to a thundering march of rolling cacophony. The Dionysian trombone finally succumbs to the harvest.
Winter falls in the second movement, with swells of bittersweet harmony.
The third and final movement is ushered in by piano, harp vibes and playful woodwinds, returning warmth to the allegorical world. The trombone sings triumphantly, revisiting themes from the first movement just like the cyclical seasons.
Mackey’s two other featured pieces, “Redline Tango” and “Antiphonal Dances” utilize similar rhythmic devices and enigmatic harmony.
“Antiphonal Dances” was slated to premier on Sept. 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center.
The concert was called off in wake of the emerging tragedy, but premiered just days later, in what Mackey called a cathartic performance. Sunday’s performance featured dancers from Contemporary Dance Oklahoma, choreographed by Derrick Minter, and marked the first time the piece had been performed with dancers since its premier.
“It’s very challenging music,” Norman Philharmonic director Richard Zielinski said. “I’ve been studying Mackey’s music for about a year now. He’s never been to a concert where they’ve done three of his pieces. He said to me ‘You could’ve picked some easier pieces,’ and I said well we have wonderful players here and I think the audience would really appreciate it and I thought it was a good contrast to some of the Haydn we did and the Barber (piece). The players did a fabulous job and the dancers were wonderful. It was a great afternoon.”
Having welcomed composers Libby Larson, Michael Daugherty and now John Mackey, the Norman Philharmonic Harmonic is growing in the right direction, Zielinski said.
“All these composers talk to each other. Everyone keeps giving us the sign of approval, that there’s something going on here. It’s exciting. We’re doing a variety of music. We’re not afraid to do experimental things. We’ve got a very good program that reaches out into the community. They’re all digging that. They love it.”
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