Perfect Pitch: New Sounds

by patrickmccoy

The world-premiere of “Elastic Band” by Joel Phillip Friedman highlights program of living composers.

By Patrick D. McCoy


Local composer Joel Friedman (left center) is joined by his Georgetown University students after the performance of his “Elastic Band” by the New Orchestra of Washington. (Photo by Patrick D. McCoy)

The Washington, D.C. music scene has a lot to offer from practically every style and genre.  So when the New Orchestra of Washington came on the scene in 2012, regular concert goers asked themselves “what will we actually see that is new?” In its beginning, the orchestra played it on the safe side by featuring chestnut works such as the masterful “Organ Concerto” by Francis Poulenc featuring organist J. Reilly Lewis.  Fast forward to its 2015 season opener presented at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center, the New Orchestra of Washington truly stepped out of the musical box, presenting a concert of music by all living, breathing composers.

There could have not been a more appropriate piece to open a Friday night concert in Washington than “Rush Hour” by John Mackey. The work itself was almost like a musical poem of thoughts – those thoughts that run through the impatient mind of someone trying to just make it home after a long hectic day. As a long drum pattern marked the pace of the work almost like a speedometer, the violins in particular seemed to swirl around the rhythmic percussion like agitated cars. The low strings were the constant throughout. The wonderful dissonances evident in the music further transported the listener to the chaos of the open road. It was certainly a tonal awakening that everyone could relate to.

The thread of familiarity continued in “Imagine: Reimagined” by music director Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez. Beginning with the strains of the classic Beatles tune played thoughtfully at the piano by Grace Cho, the theme conjured up warm feelings of nostalgia. Surrounding the pensive tune was the lyrical quality of the strings, which made what some would call a popular standard rise to the solemn reverence of an elegy.

In the midst of the other living composers on the program, there was one in particular that Washington audiences had been waiting to hear. Joel Phillip Friedman, who is a noted musician and scholar in his own right, came onto the local scene quietly without fanfare. This concert was his ‘composer’s debutante’ of sorts for his work “Elastic Band.” Commissioned for the New Orchestra of Washington, Friedman’s composition was almost like musically hearing the inner expression of his personality that has been, for the most part, low-key. As we watched his expressions during the performance of his music, we noticed that proverbial door being unlocked and his deportment mirrored the joy evident in his work. The syncopated rhythms in “Rise” followed by a slower reflective middle section projected the feeling of balance. “Pure Happenchance” took the listener on a whimsical journey, with the lyrical intermittent phrases of the clarinet leading the way, further guided by the plucked (pizzicati) strings. Closing out the set was “Stretch: Snap Back,” which found the strings in the high register of their sound riding against the drive of the percussion of the orchestra.

“Soul Garden” by Derek Bermel featured violist Derek Smith in an on-the-edge-of-your-seat performance, which exuded rock-star presence. A concert of new music, the evening was one that helped to assure the promotion and merging of new music into the standard orchestra repertoire.

After earning degrees in music from Virginia State University and Shenandoah University, Patrick D. McCoy has contributed arts pieces to CBS Washington and The Afro-American Newspaper, among others.  He also writes the magazine’s monthly performing arts column “Perfect Pitch.”  McCoy may be reached via email at and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy. 

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