Season opener leaves audiences clamoring for more from Miami's ‘21st-century chamber orchestra’

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Photo: Nu Deco Ensemble.

If you’ve ever wondered what it might have been like to hear Kurt Weill play ‘Berlin’ music in the city’s 1920s musical heyday, NuDeco Ensemble’s recent performance of ‘Miami’ music at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse potentially offered a semblance of that experience. At the concert that opened this Knight Arts Challenge winner’s first full season, the energy in the venue, the enthusiasm of the audience and the dedication of the artists had a cumulative effect that went beyond the purely musical; it took us back to other times, other cities. Yet it took place in Miami–smack in the middle of Wynwood, to be exact.

To have a contemporary chamber orchestra with a cast of local musicians perform in an alternative space is an occasion that should be welcomed, celebrated and, obviously, supported. It adds to the city’s musical geography, in the way that fellow Knight Arts grantee Seraphic Fire did in its inception, or, decades ago, the New World Symphony (where many of Nu Deco’s young musicians more recently had their starts).

Seraphic Fire, the choral group helmed by Patrick Dupré Quigley, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Jacomo Bairos and Sam Hyken’s Nu Deco Ensemble. However, both fulfill an important function. They facilitate, suggest and set standards for their older siblings–that is, more established entities also struggling to survive and succeed. Within a rather formal program, structurally speaking, Nu Deco’s young, classically trained orchestra performed music of its time and of its city–hence the parallel with the likes of Weill in Berlin and Aaron Copland in New York. Theirs is music that reflects them, that depicts them. It is music that is alive, interesting and curious. Music that, in a Wynwood space, with the performers surrounded by an audience seated in an amphitheater-like arrangement, made for a unique evening.

The first half of the concert was the richest in musical terms, featuring “Urban Sprawl” by Clint Needham (the same composer who has been tapped by Knight Foundation to create a crowdsourced symphony in Akron, Ohio). The piece, in the best tradition of Americana, set the tone for the entire evening–it was absolutely urban, dizzying and the perfect introductory work. Next, Marc Mellits’ “Octet” was expertly performed. Playing without a conductor under the attentive supervision of concertmaster Alexander Zhuk, the group’s eight strings provided a necessary moment of introspection–one of intimate, warm and suggestive overtones. Though somewhat predictable, “Bladed Stance” by Marcos Balter of Brazil, was hypnotic, dreamlike and beautiful. The coordination of woodwinds and strings was impeccable. Then, with great skill, trumpeter Craig Morris and trombonist Maciej Pietraszko led the way in “Draw Me the Sun.” The work by California jazzman Greg Simon included guitar and marimba, and at times seemed excessively ambitious. Fortunately, Bairos managed to keep everything in check.

Singer-songwriter Brika.

More pop-oriented, the second half featured local singer-songwriter Briana Alexa Martinez, who goes by the stage name Brika. The 20-year-old commanded the attention of the crowd with her deep, smoky voice and enveloping presence, and it was a wise move on the part of Nu Deco Ensemble not just to include her in the program, but to have her perform her own songs.

The finale was “LCD Soundsystem Symphonic Suite” by the multifaceted Hyken–an eclectic work that exhibited both his versatility and the possibilities of his “21st-century chamber orchestra.” It was also a piece in which clarinetist Annabelle Hwang shone.

The works–all by 20-to-50-year old composers from the Americas–shared an abundance of rhythm, an absence of anguish and a willingness to explore unconventional elements. This inclusive mix reflects the orchestra’s healthy intention to attract new audiences–something that will only happen when it is merited by the quality of the programming and performances. The Nu Deco Ensemble is not only capable of achieving this goal, but it already seems to know precisely how to do so.  

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