The members of Occasional Symphony are always on the lookout for their next venue. As an organization that makes a point of performing in nontraditional spaces, they welcome the moment of discovery, when a unique location inspires its own program.
That’s how music director Ryan Tani describes coming across the venue for their upcoming concert, “Tree Line,” which takes place at The Cloisters Castle in Lutherville this Sunday, April 28.
Located by the intersection of I-83 and I-695, The Cloisters is not where one might typically expect to feel immersed in nature. Yet, as Tani observed, “It was this juxtaposition that gripped me. You come right off the highway and find yourself in this serene, verdant area, where tall rising trees give way to a beautiful castle. So we shaped the program around that.”
The Cloisters is a Gothic-style manor built between 1929 and 1932 by Sumner A. Parker and his wife G. Dudrea Parker. Planning for the estate, however, occupied them for many decades prior, as they traveled throughout Western Europe to collect furniture, artwork and other architectural elements from medieval and Renaissance-era houses to use in their own.
Sections of The Cloisters have always been open to the public as a museum. Upon her death in 1972, Parker willed the entire estate to the city of Baltimore; for the past several decades, it has mainly been used as a wedding venue.
“In true O.S. [Occasional Symphony] fashion,” said Tani, “we wanted to celebrate this unconventional venue … and the journey of getting there through rising trees.” This idea brought them to the Toru Takemitsu piece for chamber orchestra, “Tree Line.”
Takemitsu, who died in 1996 and is one of Japan’s preeminent composers of the 20th century, frequently looked to nature to inspire his music. “He likened his compositional process to that of a gardener, in terms of working the formal structure while allowing the natural beauty of the sound to emerge,” said Tani.
Largely self-taught, Takemitsu drew heavily from the techniques of experimental Western music; John Cage was a particular influence. At the same time, his music contains moments of near-Romantic sensuality — a quality that befits his work as a film composer for directors like Akira Kurosawa, the auteur behind such classics as “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai.”
“In a lot of his music, there is this contrast between sudden, evocative sound and the potential for silence,” said Tani. “It’s very philosophical music, but it’s still so accessible and doesn’t draw attention to its own intellectualism.”
The program will also feature Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (“Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”), continuing the theme of exchange between Eastern and Western music. Now hailed as a masterpiece of French impressionism, “Prelude” was written in 1894, shortly after Debussy visited the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition and was exposed to Javanese gamelan music; thereafter, many of Debussy’s compositions showed the influence of this music and its more free-floating approach to harmony, in contrast to the pattern of tension and release that characterizes Western chord progressions.
Additionally, the “Tree Line” program will feature “Rising” by Joan Tower, a rarely-heard performance of a piece by the early 20th-century composer Mabel Wheeler Daniels, and a world premiere entitled “The Spring in Maryland” by Ellicott City-based composer Wu Yiming.
Having moved to Maryland from his hometown outside Shanghai in 2017, Wu intended to capture the feeling of experiencing spring here from the perspective of someone from a non-Western metropolis. “Spring also represents hope,” said Wu. “Moving to a new country is like a rebirth, [so] I hope the audience can [experience] the feeling of someone being born again.”
Founded in 2012, Occasional Symphony is a collective of classically-trained performers and local professional musicians. Each year, their flagship Halloween concert takes place at the 2640 Space on St. Paul Street, where they provide the score to horror movies from the silent film era. Other concerts are organized throughout the year, in keeping with the venues that inspire them.
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.