Major new scores today often come holding the hands of listeners — with video, dance, spoken word, or some other element that somehow helps to do the explaining. This has been the case at the Mann Center, which, for each of the last few seasons, has unveiled a new work with some social-justice component as the centerpiece of its orchestral series.
But Darin Atwater's South Side: Symphonic Dances restores music to its central place. The gorgeous new work, commissioned by the Mann and premiered Wednesday night by the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Kensho Watanabe, comes with no extra-musical crutches. It needs none. The piece was created as a kind of latter-day response to Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which, in its large-orchestration version by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, preceded Atwater's piece Wednesday night.
With nine discrete movements, though, Atwater's work might claim Pictures at an Exhibition as its closer relative.
These new snapshots are purely aural. And while the movements' titles nudge listeners toward concrete references — "The Gentrification of Trap," "Hood Jig" — the major part of the experience is in the joy of Atwater letting your imagination do its own investigation into the meanings of sound.
The piece toggles between struggle and the cool green air of arrival. Atwater was looking to portray oppressive forces facing African American teens: poverty, injustice, and media bias, he has said. The overall message that met the ears, though, was inspiration arriving in a reassuring cinematic musical style.
Like the best movie music, Atwater is able to light emotion with great specificity — and power. The opening movement, "West Side (Prologue)," could nearly stand on its own as a concert overture for all of the dramatic ground it covers. In a very few minutes, it manages to straddle a nuanced realm occupied by beauty, seriousness, and dignity while delivering the sense of some important message.
The orchestrations are astute — including some sounds from a digital audio workstation — and, realized with the deep powers of this orchestra, are an important part of the impact. A fight scene bites. A dance arrives wrapped in movie-magic orchestral velvet. A sequence with a delicate English horn solo blossoms into fluttering joy and into the arms of warm strings.
The finale, "Afrofuturism," has a touch of the Bernstein — cool and dangerous, a taunting laugh from the brass, and an ambiguous resolution.
Bernstein was threaded through the rest of the program. The orchestra and two excellent singers, baritone Joseph Lattanzi and soprano Alexandra Schoeny, performed excerpts from the Mass, On the Town, and Peter Pan. Schoeny was especially good at drawing meaning from "Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide, toying with the ambiguity of its slippery harmonic changes and the way it sounds like something out of Richard Strauss one moment and Johann Strauss the next.
Bernstein once played Rhapsody in Blue at the Mann, Watanabe told the audience. I wasn't there for that 1976 interpretation, but it's probably safe to say that it shared a fair degree of individualism with Stewart Goodyear's performance Wednesday on the same stage. Goodyear brought liberties, mostly rhythmic ones that made the case for this piece's jazz origins. It was a performance that left you guessing and questioning, which, in a warhorse, is always a healthy way of listening for what lies beneath the notes.