KATONAH, N.Y. — Before a concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s on a steamy Sunday afternoon here at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, a jubilant James Roe, the ensemble’s executive director, told the audience that these musicians had not presented a live, in-person performance in 472 days.
This return meant more than a mere visit from a Caramoor fixture. In recent months I’ve attended orchestral concerts around New York City. But these events played to very limited, mask-wearing audiences. At Caramoor the capacity wasn’t restricted to a mere 150 or so people. Hardly any of the 400 people in attendance wore masks (only the unvaccinated were asked to do so).
It felt like a real return to normal for classical music.
With its bucolic grounds and open-air Venetian Theater, where most programs are being presented, Caramoor is an ideal venue for summer concerts, especially during this still-challenging time. And it has planned an adventurous summer season, running through Aug. 8. This Orchestra of St. Luke’s program was conducted by Tito Muñoz, the Queens-born music director of the Phoenix Symphony, and offered works that spoke to the larger social issues of the past year.
The afternoon began with the premiere of Valerie Coleman’s “Fanfare for Uncommon Times.” The idea for the piece, as Coleman explained recently in a video interview on the Caramoor site, came from Roe, who invited her to write a piece that grappled not just with the pandemic, but the tumultuous “political landscape,” as she put it.
Yet, hanging over every American composer who writes a fanfare, Coleman said, is Aaron Copland’s iconic 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man.” In an inspired idea, this 75-minute program, after opening with Coleman’s fanfare, ended with Copland’s, and included, in the middle, Joan Tower’s plucky “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman” (1987). In a nod to Copland and Tower, Coleman also scored her piece for brass and percussion.
Yet, while writing something that offered affirmation to people emerging from unimaginably “uncommon times,” Coleman said, as a Black woman she wanted to “bring the Black experience in,” the “turmoil, the upheaval,” the complexity of recent conversations about race in America.
These threads — and the emotions entwined with them — come through vividly in Coleman’s six-minute piece. It begins not with a typical fanfare salute, but a quizzical, searching line for solo trombone that soon is cushioned by pungent, soft-spoken brass chords. Unrest amid determination stirs as the music shifts into agitated episodes for percussion. The mood seems at once reflective and restless, uplifting and ominous. The elements of the Black experience during a challenging time that Coleman described come through during a passage alive with riffs for mallet percussion instruments, hints of dance and bursts of anxious frenzy. By the end, with spurts of four-note brass motifs, echoes of Coplandesque affirmation arise, but also a breathless flurry that feels bracing yet challenging.
It made for a surprisingly good contrast to follow the Coleman with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” a “romance,” as the composer described it, for violin and orchestra, with the superb Tai Murray as soloist. This glowing, pastoral, somewhat bittersweet piece is enormously popular, but it doesn’t turn up as often as it should in concerts. Murray’s playing abounded in radiant sound, arching lyricism and delicacy. During moments when the violin writing turns intricate with evocations of fluttering birds, she dispatched the passagework with effortless grace.
Tower’s short, feisty “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” dedicated to the pioneering female conductor Marin Alsop, the outgoing director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is the first in a series of six such fanfares she has written. This short but packed, muscular piece is like a respectful retort to Copland.
Muñoz then led an elegant account of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” Suite, capturing the melancholy of the music while letting the players cut loose in dancing, near-frantic episodes. And Copland’s fanfare on this day proved the fitting conclusion: a way to usher in a moment that signals a return in more ways than one.
The festival continues through Aug. 8 in Katonah, N.Y.; caramoor.org.