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A Benefit on the Eve of the Autumnal Equinox


Concord Orchestra Benefit Concert, Alan Yost, conductor
September 21, 2008 at the Friends of the Performing Arts, Concord, MA

Mozart Horn Concerto No. 2, Kathryn Denney soloist; Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute with Susan Jackson and Sacred and Profane Dances for Harp and String Orchestra with Emily Halpern Lewis; 3 Poems of Mallarmé with soprano Sarah Telford; and
Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess

There was no shortage of free parking spaces within walking distance of the concert hall, many shaded by spreading pin oaks and other trees lining the streets. The sun was warm, skies blue, a perfect afternoon for a stroll through the center of this famous New England town before the start of the concert.

Guest conductor Alan Yost bounded on stage and commented cheerfully on the opening piece, Mozart’s Horn Concerto. He let us in on Mozart’s little messages written on the scores of his horn concertos, “bet you can’t play this,” among others. Such cracks were meant for Joseph Leutgeb, friend for whom Mozart’s four horn concertos were written.

I began thinking of a splendid scene in Amadeus (the movie), a sunny afternoon outside the palace of Emperor Joseph II, his entourage seated comfortably enjoying a performance by Wolfie. Kathryn Denney’s unpolished instrument (she said she prefers that look and the purer sound that comes without the polish) took on fast flourishes, singing phrases, quick rhythmic notes and, just before the final cadence, a single, very neat low note sounded all alone. What fun!

For the Debussy, the playful program notes of Max Derrickson also helped create the ambience of this happy late-summer outing in Concord. “To publicize the advantage of their new model,” he wrote, “Pleyel commissioned a new work from Debussy to feature the new harp in a short concerted work.” Today, one has to smile at such involvement in marketing by Debussy.

And who would not have been tempted to purchase this new-fangled instrument, having experienced Sacred and Profane Dances for Harp and Strings? Transmitted through harp and strings were nature’s images with faint references to older civilizations in Greece and the Far East. “I love pictures almost as much as music,” Debussy once revealed. In striking fashion, Emily Halpern Lewis plucked and pedaled her way through the music, the sounds as fetching as the harp itself cast in Art Deco style. She and the orchestra infused these pictorial dances with love and pleasure.

Flutist Sarah Jackson told us a lot about the title of another work by Debussy. Syrinx, who pursued the Greek God Pan, is another name for the flute; Syrinx, the statue, inspired the composer. Jackson uncannily breathed life into every note. Her playing of this solo flute music-without harmonies and without beat-seemed to trace the path of a late summer leaf becoming airborne. Out of the high end of her flute came the ephemeral; out of the low, the sensuous. Floating around and about, the leaf eventually drifts gently downward to the ground. For the final descent, Debussy used the “whole tone scale,” a strange musical scale with which he became identified.

Ravel’s not-often-heard Three Poems of Stéphane Mallarmé are songs that as much amaze the ear with exquisitely crafted diamond-like sounds as puzzle the mind with adventurous though elusive formal structures. Sarah Telford, soprano, a quartet of strings, two flutes, two clarinets, and piano created other-worldly atmospheres. It was a step out of summer, detached almost as though the phantoms of a past summer had finally arrived. Near pure and vibrato-less singing was matched with pristine timbres from each and every instrument. Sarah Telford’s deft English translation of the poems noted that the three “are linked by a common theme of unconsummated love.”

Alan Yost teased us further, arguing that Ravel’s highly popular Pavane for a Dead Princess was a “happy piece.” Derrickson’s program notes backed him up: “The Pavane was not meant to be a funeral lament for a child. Ravel chose the title because he liked the sonority of the French words ‘infante défunte.’ He hoped to evoke the scene of a young Spanish princess delighting in this stately dance in quiet reverie.” Somehow, the Concord Orchestra’s playing-or maybe it was the shaded harmony and orchestration of the composer-evoked those feelings of melancholy that come with our acknowledgement of another passing of summer. A clarinetist who has been with the orchestra for 38 years remembered that it was the princess’s ghost dancing, a spin which could also put a happy face on the Pavane. A violinist who has been with the Concord Orchestra for 51 years, mediated our differences. “It is beautiful music.” We all agreed.

Founded in 1953, the Concord Orchestra is composed of 70 musicians, professionals and amateurs who live in Concord and the greater Boston metropolitan area. Richard Pittman, founder and music director of Boston Musica Viva, has been the music director and conductor of the Orchestra since 1969. Google Concord Orchestra for their season schedule.

David Patterson is Professor of Music, University of Massachusetts Boston

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