Sunday’s concert was highlighted by the world premiere of Bernard Hoffer’s ballet after Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Among the many shared characteristics between Richard Pittman’s several Boston-area ensembles, one of the finest must be their collective commitment to performances geared towards children and families. For an ensemble like the Boston Symphony Orchestra to offer such things isn’t really a big deal: out of several hundred performances a year, even a handful devoted to young audiences doesn’t amount to too high an overall percentage of concerts. But for groups that only give four programs a season, devoting the whole of one of them to families is significant. So it’s not only heartening that Pittman engages so enthusiastically in such things with the Concord Orchestra, New England Philharmonic, and Boston Musica Viva (BMV), but that the programs he curates on them are so substantial. Indeed, in BMV’s annual Family Concert, given this past Sunday at the Tsai Performance Center, that last quality proved impossible to escape.
Sunday’s concert was highlighted by the world premiere of Bernard Hoffer’s ballet after Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride. Scored for narrator and Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion), Hoffer’s score offered its share of familiar-sounding items, including a pair of folk-ish dances towards its beginning and end, a taut march for the Red Coats, and snatches from “The Star-Spangled Banner” that popped up here and there. At times, the music was evocative to an almost cinematic degree, like when the percussionist imitated the clopping of Revere’s galloping horse.
But those latter moments (thankfully) weren’t as frequent as they might have been. In fact, to these ears, the most impressive quality of Paul Revere’s Ride was the music’s unwillingness to write down to its audience. A ballet for a family concert this might have been, but Hoffer’s writing in it didn’t shy away from sonic astringency or from exploring some nebulous psychological terrain. On the contrary, it embraced the sense of mystery and the darkness at the heart of Longfellow’s poem and ran far with it. There were some fine, mysterious instrumental combinations (dovetailing phrases for alto flute and bass clarinet hauntingly rendered by Anne Bobo and William Kirkley, respectively, were one memorable touch) and subtle dialogues for strings and percussion. Steve Aveson delivered the text (Hoffer incorporated all of Longfellow’s poem into his ballet) with a mix of nobility and sobriety. If it felt a little pontifical towards the end, well, that probably had more to do with the increasingly-archaic syntax of Longfellow’s verse than anything else.
Thirty-plus members of the Northeast Youth Ballet made dynamic work of Revere’s several roles. Whether depicting the Red Coats, Colonial Men and Women, or Spirits in the churchyard beneath Old North Church, the corps danced with feeling and remarkable precision. Ethan Maszer, in particular, offered an impressive mix of physical agility and youthful vigor that well suited his portrayal of the title character.
The afternoon began with Pittman leading BMV in a light-footed reading of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. One might quibble about hearing the piece in an arrangement – the Wolf’s theme played on a piano, for instance, doesn’t pack nearly the same menace as it does when performed by horns – but it at least fit, programmatically, with the spirit of the afternoon.
Among the performers, clarinetist Kirkley was kept busiest, switching between a bigger-than-usual array of clarinets plus a saxophone. Flautist Bobo delivered lithe and lively accounts of her fluttering part which, most of the time, depicts the perspective of the Bird. And Bayla Keyes’ account of Peter’s theme soared.
In Peter, Aveson had a bit more flexibility with the lineup of characters than in Paul Revere’s Ride and he made the most of their contrasting personalities. Whether channeling the lethargic Duck, the sprightly Bird, the stern Grandfather, or the mischievous Peter, his was a performance of much charisma and humor: it’s clear why he’s such a favorite Pittman collaborator for these concerts with BMV and the New England Philharmonic.
Alas, the Tsai Performance Center is among the drier-sounding halls in town and, as a result, on Sunday, BMV’s performance of the Prokofiev lacked a certain tonal finish. Ultimately, that didn’t detract from the focus of the performance or, technically, its execution. But perhaps one of these days when they’re done putting up new structures on whatever limited free land remains on their property, the powers-that-be at Boston University will see fit to renovate Tsai. Considering all the important musical work that goes on there – by the University’s many ensembles to guests like Pittman’s groups and others – the place deserves warmer, fuller acoustics than it’s got.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.