in: Reviews

March 1, 2009

Celtic Excursions at the Newton Symphony

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The Newton Symphony Orchestra, lead by James Orent, presented its concert on March 1 with a program of works by Hector Berlioz, William Alwyn, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, John Williams, and Max Bruch. With a Hollywood composer and Romantic composers from France and Germany, “Celtic Voyages”—the tagline of the program—was clearly applied liberally. Nonetheless, each piece on the program can be connected (if loosely) to Celtic traditions. With the diversity of styles represented, and some fine performances by featured soloists Susan Robinson and Joseph Scheer, the NSO again exceeds expectations for community orchestras in the Boston area.

The program began with Hector Berlioz’s Rob Roy Overture, inspired by the Sir Walter Scott novel. The piece was renounced by the composer after its 1831 premiere, yet much of the material was recycled into other pieces from the composer’s early career. The performance was remarkably dynamic and teeming with energy, though at times dissatisfying in rhythmic precision. The real treat was the following performance of William Alwyn’s Lyra Angelica for harp and strings. The performance of the Adagio was utterly beautiful, showcasing the masterfully gripping technique of featured harp soloist Susan Robinson over an atmosphere of eerie string melodies. Robinson’s performance was wildly enrapturing, with a sense of poignancy that lingered well after the conclusion of the piece.

The concert continued with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s Fifth Irish Rhapsody, which featured many moments of chamber-like, stripped-down orchestration. These moments really unveiled the momentous skill of the principle performers. Violinists Sonja Larson and Irina Fainkichen, cellist Karen Belsley Pratt, and perhaps most notably clarinetist Susan Porr really brought the Stanford to life. Even in the fully orchestrated moments, the orchestra possessed the precision and rhythmic drive that was lacking in the Berlioz.

In my opinion, the inclusion of John William’s suite from Far and Away was a programming blunder. John William’s is an undeniably consummate composer—well worthy of his popularity—but the “suite” of the film music from Far and Away is nothing short of pure Hollywood cheese. The ensemble performed the music accurately and with conviction, though I’d wager even the performers had trouble keeping recollections of Tom Cruise’s ridiculous Irish accent out of their minds during the performance.

Saving the most substantial work for last, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy returned harpist Susan Robinson to the stage, along with featured violinist Joseph Scheer. Scheer’s performance was displayed a palpable sense of musicianship and virtuosity, though at first, the soloist seemed timid, even unconfident. Nonetheless, the performance was extremely well handled by the conductor, orchestra, and soloists alike.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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