This Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Digital Concert program featured two texture-driven works, though strikingly different: Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint and the world premiere of Tyshawn Sorey’s For Marcos Balter for violin and orchestra, featuring soloist Jennifer Koh and conducted by Xian Zhang (replacing Christian Reif). The concert opened with Price’s piece, an arrangement of spirituals for string quartet. Considering the challenges inherent in communicating facial expressions through masks, their crisp synchronization was especially impressive. Each folksong featured familiar melodies interwoven within a sea of shifting textures, going from active, acute bite to full-bodied dissonance, with melodic reassurance balancing the chromatic uneasiness in the folksong variations. A few in particular stood out: Clementine hearkened back to childhood, with the recognizable tune passed around the quartet amidst the playful energy. Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes was ravishing in its regality, singing through the strings in hymn-like dialogue. The lamenting melodic contours slipped in and out of the sonic viscosity, creating an illusion of a full orchestra’s sweeping magnitude.

Members of the Detroit Symphony
© Sarah Smarch

Then came Sorey’s For Marcos Balter, a groundbreaking reconstruction of the concerto as we know it. Sorey discussed this in a pre-concert interview, calling it a “non-certo;” it negates the usual form (fast-slow-fast) as “a flat surface from start to finish”, is evolutionary rather than motif-driven, and is an “imaginary landscape” with an “imaginary soloist”, where we must use our imagination to discern the violinist’s sounds from the orchestra’s, as they are camouflaged within each other. Sorey called it a “democratic process of performance”. Koh was nestled within the orchestra, blended in further by the intimate atmosphere of dimmed spotlights on not just her, but every musician. They were considerably spaced out, with only one or two representatives of each instrument, which catered to absorbing her into the ensemble panorama.

Jennifer Koh, Xian Zhang and the Detroit Symphony
© Sarah Smarch

An ambiguous first chord in the piano softly spilled out like stones skipping on water as Koh’s single low note resounded, not hiding behind shimmering vibrato, but rather raw and exposed. This recurring, prolonged stasis expanded into dissonance, and ascended with the orchestra’s guidance. At moments the brassiness, string and woodwind sounds took over and Koh snuck back in as the grounding element. The sound world was spellbindingly skittish, unfolding as the piece coaxed it, and occasionally retreated back to closed-voiced textures. Each instrument seeped in with a note that unsettled and redirected the one prior. The fragility of the texture was mesmerizing; Koh and the orchestra cautiously proceeded together, becoming more sonically exploratory as single threads of notes interwove with others. Tension and release, destabilization and recovery operated non-linearly in blocks and displacement; much was left unresolved.

Xian Zhang and Jennifer Koh
© Sarah Smarch

With the “imaginary soloist” idea, there were no grandiose stops/starts; we did not know when she would retreat or surface. It was haunting, creating skeletal frames of textures and gradually filling them. Sorey dissolves the typical concerto hierarchy here; the orchestra works alongside her rather than beneath her. They finished each other's sentences in a stream-of-consciousness dynamic as opposed to the typical concerto model of call-and-response; she converses with them rather than at them. They took turns contextualizing each other, like an aural version of an optical illusion going in and out of focus. Being a livestream, the camera’s control of our perspective contributed to this hierarchy destabilization as well; usually, the audience's eyes go to the soloist in a concerto setting, but it zoomed in on all the musicians, drawing attention to the subtleties of the entire ensemble.

This performance was reviewed from the DSO video stream