European composers still tend to dominate most classical music programs in the United States, but the Columbia Orchestra makes a case for our country in a program titled "American Inspirations."
Some of that American music is freshly minted, too, in its concert on Saturday, Feb. 4, at 7:30 p.m., in the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School.
Although the concert-opening piece, N. Cameron Britt's "Inledning," bears a Swedish word meaning "Introduction" as its name, that merely reflects this contemporary American composer having spent time in Sweden.
What's probably most notable about this fast and furious piece is its brevity. "Inledning" has a running time of 56 seconds or, as Columbia Orchestra music director Jason Love joked during an interview, 57 seconds if it's played more slowly.
The other contemporary American composer on the concert bill clocks in with a 13-minute piece that's notable for being the winner of the Columbia Orchestra's 2011 American Composer Competition. Christopher Weiss's "Voice of the Unknown Soldier" won over 100 other entries. It has only been done once previously, by the Jacksonville Symphony. This speaks to the competition's rule that entries do not need to be premieres, but can have been done no more than two or three times before.
Doing relatively new compositions is an important part of this orchestra's musical identity.
"We don't only do traditional masterworks, but also do a lot of more recent works," notes Columbia Orchestra executive director Ted Griepentrog. "It's not only things from 200 years ago."
He credits Love with striking that musical balance; and Love illustrates his affinity for new music as he describes the competition-winning piece. He says that Weiss's family has a history of serving in the military, and that the composer also was inspired by Nathaniel Fick's recent book, "One Bullet Away," reflecting the author's service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Musically, the martial sounds include a section that may remind listeners of a John Phillip Sousa march.
"It's a very dramatic piece, but he is not just pressing buttons" in terms of incorporating such influences, Love says. "Although there is not a strict program in the music, it's emotional."
If you want to hear from the Portsmouth, N.H.-based composer himself, Weiss is giving a pre-concert talk.
Another piece on the program could hardly be more American in nature. Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," which won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize in music, originally was written for a Martha Graham ballet.
The beloved orchestral suite derived from that ballet music is most notable for its use of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." Discussing this compact 23-minute-long American classic, Love says it "has elements of a symphony."
Although the longest piece on the program is not an American composition, it reflects American influences. Speaking about the late-19th-century Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 104, Love observes: "The Dvorak can be a tough one to program, because at 45 minutes in length it is one of the longest cello concertos."
Unlike Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, which overtly references American folk music, Love says "the cello concerto is more subtle than that, with folk songs and simple tunes" reflecting both Dvorak's Czech heritage and a period when he lived in America.
The soloist for the Dvorak is cellist Rachel Young, a Washington, D.C., native who studied at the New England Conservatory and the Peabody Conservatory. She formerly was principal cellist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, and currently is a member of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Young's playing surely will help bring out how musical influences freely cross borders. An American-inflected Czech cello concerto is as good a place as any to listen for that cultural interplay.
The Columbia Orchestra performs Saturday, Feb. 4, at 7:30 p.m. in the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. At the 6:30 p.m. pre-concert discussion, composer Christopher Weiss talks with Howard Community College faculty member Bill Scanlan Murphy. Tickets are $20, $16 for seniors over 60, $10 for full-time students, and free for active duty military. Tickets may be purchased at the door, online at http://www.columbiaorchestra.org, and at the Ellicott City, Laurel and Arundel Mills locations of Music and Arts. Call 410-465-8777.