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Concerts & Recitals, North America June 2023

Overstory Overture

Alice Tully Hall

THE INCHOATE RUMBLES and wheezes that howled through Tod Machover’s Overstory Overture conjured a natural world thrown into disorder. The work is drawn from Richard Powers’s ecologically minded 2018 novel The Overstory, which follows nine characters whose lives are shaped by their forebodings about deforestation. The composer and his librettist Simon Robson are developing a full-length opera on the subject; Machover describes the present piecea thirty-five-minute monodrama for vocal soloist, string orchestra, marimba and electronics—as a “preview.” Overstory Overture focuses on a single one of Powers’s characters: Patricia Westerfield, a scientist who discovers that trees can communicate with each other. The work’s world premiere, on March 7 at Alice Tully Hall, formed the second half of a concert from the chamber orchestra Sejong Soloists. Joyce DiDonato played Westerfield, Earl Lee conducted, Karole Armitage provided stage direction.

At the outset of the performance, toppled music stands were strewn across the stage—as near-complete a depiction of chaos as can be imagined in the context of an orchestral performance. As the musicians entered on stage, bearing their own instruments, they righted their stands. The work’s musical strategy echoed the gesture: the prevailing texture was defined by its buzzing, clashing aural elements, but an elusive kind of order seemed to be struggling to break through. The first part of the program had included with Anton Webern’s early Langsamer Satz; whether through design or happenstance, parts of Overstory Overture echoed that work’s late-Romantic language, hinting at both a safe harbor and possible further dissolution.

DiDonato in recent seasons has built on her already abundant strengths, finding new and more complex shadings for her lyric mezzo-soprano. Here it seemed like she was both matching and expanding upon the colors transmitted through Machover’s orchestration and Ben Bloomberg’s sound design. In sepulchral low notes she suggested the horror of impending ecological disaster; in the work’s final section, much of it sung on the word “breathe,” the voice seemed buoyed by the air around her. One cavil: she made very little of Robson’s text intelligible, a fault more probably due more to the vocal writing itself than to any shortcoming on her part.

The first part of the program allowed the Sejong Soloists to demonstrate their considerable ensemble skills: in the Adagio from Michael Haydn’s F major Notturno, in their soulful rendering of the Webern piece, and in Mendelssohn’s early D minor Violin Concerto, with ensemble member Stephen Kim as the deft, elegant soloist. —Fred Cohn