in: Reviews

April 27, 2009

Oddball Program, Communal Group

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The most interesting thing about the New England Philharmonic’s last concert on April 25 was the group itself. That’s not to say the music presented was no good (far from it), but the ensemble is relatively unique, so a few words should be paid. It is made up of both professionals and non-professionals. Members of the group who only played in the first half of the concert came into the audience to sit with friends for the second half. Conductor Richard Pittman engages the audience before each piece, making for a slightly more personal experience. The acoustics of BU’s Tsai Performance Center are too general-purpose to fit an orchestra well (they often seemed to be playing better than they sounded). However, the hall’s configuration makes you feel very close to the orchestra. The group’s attitude is casual, but not to the detriment of any professionalism. The overall effect is of greater community and intimacy than one often gets from orchestral music.

Saturday night’s program was a bit eclectic. The selections were anything but stale, but it was hard to tell why they shared the bill. Opening was Elliott Carter’s Remembrance, from his Three Occasions for Orchestra. It was written in the memory of Paul Fromm. Though its tone is familiar to the genre of memorial music, the play on time and memory is unique to Carter. A lone trombone plays disjunct melodies against stiff orchestral chords. It suggests that the sorrow of mourning is not just the loss itself, but the struggle in reaching into one’s past to maintain a memory of that person.

As a note to those who feel they’re fighting in the trenches for the cause of new music: as it happened, I ended up sitting next to the parents of the timpanist for the Carter, who was a (mere) 16-year-old. His mother was delighted to hear her son play the music and shared that she also enjoyed hearing him practice some of Carter’s solo timpani “marches” (presumably études). Webern may yet get his whistling mailman.

I had heard that Henri Dutilleux is a fine and original composer whose music suffers undue neglect. After hearing his L’arbe des songes, I can report that this is indeed the case. His voice is certifiably French. He writes with a lusciousness that can broadly be characterized as following Debussy (his tibral choices have a more untamed feel). He gave the musicians many notes to play, but probably would have felt slighted if they had suggested any struggle in their execution. This was a violin concerto (Danielle Maddon played with the appropriate voluptuousness and ease), tracing the titular tree from its roots to a full flowering.

The most involved piece was a commission from Peter Child. Louisa’s War added chorus and narrator (Joyce Kulhawik) to the group. The Louisa of the title is Louisa May of the Alcotts, whose Civil War writings provided the base of Michael Ouellette’s libretto. My hearing of the piece differed from Child’s program note in a peculiar way. The piece ends with Louisa describing a victory parade after the war: “Saw the great procession, and though colored men were in it, one was walking arm in arm with a white gentleman and I exulted thereat.” The note says this is an “ambivalent” moment with a backdrop of “controlled chaos” related to “Louisa’s diseased delirium.” Unfortunately, the music at this point sounded too much like an Ivesian populist victory for this ambivalence to come through. Against the text, it came off as an unearned climax.

After intermission came Dvorák’s 8th Symphony (an oddball in a program of oddballs). Pittman drew out the less tried-and-true aspects of the music, playful phrasings and rhythmic quirks, giving freshness to the composer’s work.

Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge

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