The Lexington Symphony is a far more professional orchestra than the typical community orchestras around Boston (Newton Symphony, Waltham Symphony, Brookline Symphony, the Longwood Symphony) and the level of playing was high indeed.
By Susan Miron
This past Saturday night (September 19) was the second time I have heard The Lexington Symphony (LSO), clearly cherished in its hometown, and I was once again impressed. Founded in 1995, it has been under the baton of the charismatic Jonathan McPhee since 2005; they give concerts six times a season at Lexington’s Cary Hall, as well as outreach concerts to younger audiences.
The last concert I heard had the orchestra sitting on the floor, taking questions from the audience. McPhee is not only a really good conductor (he also leads the Boston Ballet Orchestra and Nashua Symphony and Chorus), but he is the kind of conductor that makes an audience immediately feel comfortable and musically and intellectually engaged. The Boston Symphony could use someone exactly like this. Actually they had one—James Levine.
Saturday’s concert was typical of the ambitious programming that the LSO undertakes. The program consisted of two works with curious similaritie—Debussy’s “Nocturnes” and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” Usually Maestro McPhee gives a preconcert talk, but the building was under construction, so he spoke before each piece, pointing out that each of these pieces end with a woman’s choir. Oddly, each of these pieces—one so very French, the other so pointedly English-sounding—had their premieres by Queens Hall Orchestra in England. And both, one quickly notices, have important woodwind and harp parts.
The Lexington Symphony is a far more professional orchestra than the typical community orchestras around Boston (Newton Symphony, Waltham Symphony, Brookline Symphony, the Longwood Symphony) and the level of playing was high indeed. Their brass and woodwinds were really good (as they had been in May when I heard them last), and the two harps, Barbara Poeschl-Edrich and Franziska Huhn were, throughout, but especially in the Holst, an outstanding team. My only complaint is that there simply were not enough strings for these orchestral showpieces, but I don’t think the stage could accommodate more players.
In his short talk, McPhee explained that a big part of Debussy’s sound world was the use of ninth chords and the use of old modalities such as Frigian and Mixolydian modes, which imparted “a very jazzy sound to it.” Debussy was also famously influenced by the gamelan orchestra he heard at the Paris World Exposition of 1889 as well as painters J. M. W. Turner whom he called “the greatest creator of mystery in art” and James Whistler who produced a series of paintings called “Nocturnes” in the 1880s.
The “Nocturnes,” one of Debussy’s most popular works, begins with a reverie-like depiction of clouds (“Nuages”), featuring beautiful playing by the flutes, English horn, and the harps. This was followed by “Fetes,” all colors and fun, as McPhee described it. From the left balcony, the women of the New World Chorale lent their lovely wordless voices in the third (“Sirènes”) movement, playing the part of mythical bird women whose seductive songs lure sailors to their demise.
The Debussy received a beautiful performance, full of nuance and virtuosity, both which came in handy in Holst’s even more virtuosic displays in “The Planets” that catapulted this 39-year-old, English, school music master to, for him, unimagined fame. An immediate hit, orchestras fought over who would get to premiere it. In the U.S., The New York Philharmonic and The Chicago Symphony actually shared the premiere date, a most unusual event. Holst and his friend Ralph Vaughn Williams were both interested in creating an “English” sound, much as Debussy was trying to create a “French” sound and distinctly French music. The two friends examined peasant music and modal systems, and actually, many musicians believe, did create an “English” sound.
“The Planets” with their seven movements (one for each planet) omitted Earth and the poor Pluto. Each movement has its own sound world, some like Saturn with its harp harmonics generating an otherworldly atmosphere, others like the well-known Jupiter, a brassy Pops piece, coming off as a harbinger of the music of John Williams. And finally, this time from the right balcony, the haunting voices of the women in a dreamscape with eerie, beautiful voices appearing and quietly fading into the world of spirits.
The Lexington Symphony’s season has some excellent upcoming programs and a terrific conductor. They’re worth a trip to Lexington.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.