There aren’t too many ensembles around that consistently remind us how fresh, rich, diverse, and thought-provoking the music of the present and near past is.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
A Fanfare and Fireworks, the New England Philharmonic’s (NEP) 40th-season finale heard Saturday night at Boston’s Tsai Performance Center, wrapped up the orchestra’s celebratory year in style. Of the six works on the program, three were premieres – and the other three turn up in Boston about as regularly as Republicans control the levers of city government.
The night’s first premiere was Peter Childs’ Flourish, the last in a series of fanfares composed by the NEP’s former composers-in-residence for the anniversary season. It was short but whimsical, alternating a quizzical, syncopated figure with some brassy outbursts and ending with a knowing wink.
David Rakowski’s Violin Concerto no. 2, which closed the concert’s first half, was even more impish. Written for NEP concertmaster Danielle Maddon, the composer described it as being “fun and a little bit light” – a contrast to the Berg Concerto he’s heard Maddon play on several occasions.
In the event, Rakowski’s Concerto proved to be lots of fun, full of wit, personality, and color. Its first movement involves the strings (including the soloist) playing almost entirely pizzicato. Any sustained, lyrical bits belong to the winds or brass (and the latter’s sonorities are often tinted through the use of various mutes). The music generally bounces along, its motivic ideas darting unpredictably between soloist and orchestral sections, always bright, spirited, and ingratiating.
The slow middle movement is a bit more subdued, with long-breathed, lyrical writing for the soloist and an atmospheric orchestral accompaniment. In the finale, elements of the earlier movements appear, though now they’re heard in more of a driving, jazzy context.
The whole piece is tailor-made for Maddon, who played it on Saturday with vigor and panache. There was a bit of Maddon the Concertmaster in how she helped lead the often-syncopated patterns of the first movement, cuing and coordinating her entrances with those of the orchestra. In the introspective second, Maddon tapped a sweetly lyrical tone that, in the finale, turned into something more rustic, and improvisational-sounding. Throughout, she was fully, winningly in her element.
Music director Richard Pittman led the NEP in a strong, vibrant accompaniment. There were a couple of spots in the finale that might have moved forwards with a bit more certainty, but the rhythmic energy of the first movement rarely let up and the dreamy second sang warmly.
The overall impression left by the score was one of substance, invention, and style: Rakowski’s written a gem of a piece that surely deserves many hearings and performances (not to mention recordings). Whether or not it’ll get them is, of course, an open question, but, on a philosophical and musical level, this was a demonstration of what the NEP does best: birthing creative, important, strong new pieces.
Music of at least a mild political persuasion marked the evening’s second half. Liliya Ugay’s Oblivion, winner of this year’s annual Call-for-Scores and the night’s third premiere, was composed in response to the composer not being able to get a visa to return to her homeland of Uzbekistan. She described the score as a journey through memories that, rather than providing solace and comfort, provoke frustration and anger instead.
And so the music did: when its fragments coalesced into a flute melody (sweetly rendered by principal flute Michael Horowitz) around the midpoint, the orchestra determinedly and violently dissected the tune, eventually shattering it.
Ugay, who’s a graduate student at Yale, writes adeptly for orchestra. Her woodwind and percussion scoring in Oblivion (and the NEP’s playing of it on Saturday) is particularly evocative. Stylistically, the piece is fluid and theatrical, with lancing atonal gestures brushing up against folk-sounding materials. Echoes of film music and Shostakovich crop up, too. But these creative decisions all serve clear, expressive purposes — the music makes its case with immediacy.
It’s a bit harder to say the same about Zoltán Kodály’s massive Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song (“The Peacock”), which closed the evening. It’s an interesting piece and rarely played (the Boston Symphony, for instance, has performed it just twice: in 1964 and 1991) but, compared with the rest of Saturday’s program, the Kodály stood out for its long-windedness and conventionality.
That’s not to say the performance was bad. Actually, the NEP probably sounded the best it did all night in these Variations. The music’s big, grand textures rang splendidly. The slow funeral march variation was stately and taut. And its final pages were robust and exuberant.
But there seemed a dutiful quality to Kodály’s writing that was lacking in the other works heard on the program. And, short seeing a printed text to the original song (whose anti-tyranny sentiments evidently led the score to be banned in Hungary in 1940), it was hard to engage with the music as anything more than an elaborate set of variations essentially after the style of Brahms.
On the contrary, Aaron Copland’s Orchestral Variations, heard on the concert’s first half, came off as bracing and crisp. An orchestration of the Modernistic Piano Variations, it’s plenty dissonant and crunchy. But Copland’s distinctive voice speaks through the granitic motivic writing and his scoring is all his own.
Pittman and the NEP gave it a robust performance. There was some tentativeness in exposed passages and spots of ensemble disunity, but, as an interpretation, everything was clearly laid out. The many iterations of the Variations’ four-note theme helped the listener keep track through its twenty variations and the brilliant orchestration offered a welcome opportunity to consider the originality and vitality of Copland’s wider output.
Equally impressive was Sebastian Currier’s Microsymph, a ten-minute-long, five-movement symphony written for the American Composers Orchestra in 1997. It has, quite possibly, everything you look for in a symphony: a bracing, syncopated first movement; a pair of witty interludes (including a “minute waltz”); a weighty, expressive slow movement; and a finale that ties everything together.
Here, Pittman and the NEP were in fine fettle, puckish in the waltz and “nanoscherzo,” stern and mighty in the Adagio. It was, quite simply, a brilliant performance of music you may not hear played anywhere else.
And, while that is a shame, it’s also a reminder to celebrate that there’s a NEP to begin with. After all, there aren’t too many ensembles around that consistently remind us how fresh, rich, diverse, and thought-provoking the music of the present and near past is. The NEP does. May its next forty years be as productive and meaningful as its first.
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.