By Caldwell Titcomb
The most enterprising program offered by any of our local orchestras in years took place on February 23 when the New England Philharmonic presented a concert at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center. Founded in 1976, the orchestra is composed of both professional and non-professional musicians, led by Richard Pittman. The evening offered music by four important composers, with Pittman making brief remarks about each.
The enterprising evening ended with a composition by Boston native Irving Fine
Mozart’s last six symphonies are all well-known masterpieces. It was a welcome decision that the program began with the least-played of the group, the C-major Linz Symphony (K. 425), written in 1783. On arriving in Linz with his new wife, Mozart discovered that he was expected to provide a new work for an imminent concert. Under great pressure, therefore, he wrote a new symphony in four days, and despite the rush came up with a flawless work.
Following Haydn’s examples, this was the first Mozart symphony to have a fast movement open with a slow introduction. Another unusual feature was a slow movement that employed trumpets and timpani. After the customary minuet came an ebullient finale. Aside from a horn bobble or two (similarly noticeable in the New York Philharmonic’s concert in North Korea), the players caught the work’s spirit admirably.
Next we had the Violin Concerto No. 2 by George Tsontakis (born 1951). Written for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2003, it was premiered, Pittman told us, in memory of Sen. Paul Wellstone, who had died in a plane crash in 2002. Pittman also called attention to the work’s emphasis on the high register.
The concerto has four movements. The first, called “Stars pitter patter,” gives prominence to the piano and harp. The second, “Giocco,” contains hints of Gallic music. The third, “Cantilena,” calls for muted strings and has some short solo cadenzas. The finale, “Just Go!,” has an unexpectedly sudden ending.
The soloist was the orchestra’s concertmaster, Danielle Maddon, who seemed to be in technical command. Unfortunately, her playing was frequently overpowered by the rest of the orchestra. One saw her bowing away but didn’t hear the result. One would like to experience the work again with better balances, for it in 2005 won the annual $200,000 Grawemeyer Award.
After intermission the program turned to the English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934). Aside from his justly admired The Planets, he doesn’t figure in concerts as much as he deserves. Pittman chose a real rarity from Holst’s oeuvre: the Choral Hymns from the Rig-Veda, Group II, Op. 26 (1909). Holst was deeply attracted to the Hindu religion and even learned Sanskrit. He translated and set four groups of texts from the Rig-Veda, each for somewhat different forces. Heard here were the three gorgeous pieces constituting the second group, for female chorus and orchestra. The first slow movement honors Varuna, god of the sky and water, and makes prominent use of the harp. The second addresses Agni, god of fire, and is appropriately agitated and metrically irregular. The third is a luscious funeral chant.
Composer Gustav Holst — He had a yen for the Hindu religion
Assisting the players was a well-trained chorus of 74 women – 25 from the Simmons College Choir (prepared by Danica Buckley) and 49 from the Wellesley College Choir (prepared by Lisa Graham). I shouldn’t be surprised if this was Boston’s first exposure to this remarkable music.
Having opened with a superb symphony, the concert closed with another superb symphony, which Pittman called “the centerpiece of this program.” The work was the Symphony (1962) by Irving Fine (1914-62), his largest, most serious and last completed composition. A Boston native, Fine earned two degrees at Harvard, taught there for a decade, and then joined the faculty of fledgling Brandeis University, where he chaired and built up the School of Creative Arts.
Most of Fine’s early music was neoclassical, strongly influenced by Stravinsky. In his last works, including his symphony, he incorporated some serial procedures though he did not apply them with total rigor. The symphony was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which premiered it under Charles Munch. It calls for a large orchestra with a lot of extra percussion.
The first movement, titled “Intrada,” suggests a parade of characters and is imaginatively scored. The following “Capriccio” is a scurrying scherzo predominantly in duple meter. The concluding “Ode” is a severe fantasy that draws on variants of material used earlier in the work. In August of 1962 Fine himself conducted the Boston Symphony in the work at Tanglewood, and a few days later succumbed to a massive heart attack at the age of 47.
The piece is exceedingly difficult to play, especially owing to its tricky rhythmic demands. The Philharmonic must have spent an enormous amount of time rehearsing it, for the performance was pretty amazing from the opening bassoon duet to the powerful nobility and majesty at the end. I cannot recall another Boston performance of the work since its premiere, and thanks are thus due for this revival of a supreme American symphony.
For those who want to explore this masterly work, the live Tanglewood performance conducted by the composer is available on a CD recording. And there is a good 1993 recording by Joel Spiegelman and the Moscow Radio Symphony. In addition, Phillip Ramey recently published an authoritative biography of Fine. Ars longa, vita brevis.