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NE Philharmonic’s Ambitious Program: Harbison, Warshaw, Stravinsky, and Violinist Freshman in Ravel


The New England Philharmonic, one of Boston’s longest-lived pro-am orchestras, closed its 33rd season at Boston University’s Tsai Center on May 1 under the baton of its Music Director since 1997, Richard Pittman. The program was ambitious: all the works were written in the 20th century, from Stravinsky’s 1917 Song of the Nightingale to Dalit Warshaw’s 2000 Camille’s Dance. The only relatively familiar work was Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane, featuring the 16-year-old Jaclyn Freshman, who copped this year’s NE Phil Young Artists Competition. On top of this, we were given a rare hearing of John Harbison’s Symphony No. 2 from 1986. Whether it was the balmy spring weather, insufficient PR, or the prospect of hearing some potentially gnarly sounds, the house was a bit sparse, to the loss of those who stayed home.

The program opened with the Harbison, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. It was performed by them three seasons running, and not much thereafter, according to the composer in a post-performance conversation. He ticked off a handful of prior performances—Seattle, St. Louis, … and observed that this was the least-performed of his five symphonies to date. He ascribed this to its difficulty and the fact that it ends softly, a program-killer to many conductors and audiences (except for the Tchaikovsky Pathétique, so long as attendees come in pairs so one can belabor the other for trying to applaud after the third movement). This is too bad, as Harbison 2 is full of delights. Its four movements run one into another, and as Mr. Harbison pointed out in a pre-performance homily—no need to compete with the marvelously detailed program notes adapted from Michael Steinberg’s for the première—he violated one of his own cardinal rules by writing transitions from one movement to the other. His objective, though he didn’t put it quite this way, was to “show” the audience the scenes being changed, as the movement headings depict a day’s progress —“Dawn,” “Daylight,” “Dusk,” and “Dark.” It took Haydn three whole symphonies to make that journey, but everything goes faster nowadays.

Dawn begins, appropriately, with what stands in for a cock-crow (hey, if Mahler can make a cuckoo sing in fourths, Harbison is no less entitled to a minor-third rooster), which leads and integrates into music that lucidly traces movement from chaos to order. “Day” breaks with a bang and charges forward in a harmonic idiom rather more astringent than Harbison’s more recent scores, but always blending the new and the traditional. Harbison is not reluctant to let the strings, as here, carry a great deal of the argument. A lovely wind passages moves us to the slow movement and “Dusk,” which the composer described as his favorite time of day. This is unabashedly melodious music, with cellos front and center, at times reminding one in spirit, if not notes, of the crepuscular aura of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer 1915. Harbison’s use of orchestral color is both masterful and unostentatious. The finale is a rather complex reaction to nighttime, not what one would expect, bustling with counterpoint and cross-rhythms, reaching a noisy climax before subsiding and coming to a surprisingly abrupt end. Mr. Pittman and ensemble attacked this difficult work with obvious relish and dedication. We had not heard this piece before and cannot, therefore, compare the performance to any other. The overall sound was good — the strings especially so — and while it seemed as if everyone was getting their notes, at least by observing what sounds followed Pittman’s clear direction, there were occasions when one wondered if things were hanging by their fingernails. Still, the performance was effective, especially in light of the challenges the work presented.

The Ravel Tzigane is a very peculiar work. Dating from 1924, it is long past the heyday of Sarasate and other virtuoso colonizers of gypsy idioms; perhaps, although written for a Hungarian violinist who featured this kind of music, it is more about the genre of gypsification than about Roma music as such. Nevertheless, it never fails to please, with or without ironic undertones, and it seems to be a clear hit with young virtuosi: a friend of ours has a 16-year-old prizewinner son who has just performed it in the DC area. Ms. Freshman, the same age and a student of Jin-Kyung Joen at NEC Prep, tore into the lengthy cadenza that opens the work with relish, a delicious plummy tone, and a judiciously restrained attack that forswore some of the macho overbearing that afflicts many young performers of both sexes. Visually, however, she compensated with a flourish of body English to accompany the many bow lifts in the solo introduction. Her runs were a hit: impeccably and impressively clear. The orchestral accompaniment was not always quite so clear, although at various points it seemed, judging from Pittman’s many sideways glances, that the soloist was leading the orchestra a merry chase.

The second half opened with another type of program music, Dalit Hadass Warshaw’s Camille’s Dance, a musical reflection on three sculptures by Camille Claudel capturing dance movements: “La valse,” “La vague,” and “La fortune,” which Ms. Warshaw, who now teaches at Boston Conservatory, saw at the Rodin Museum in Paris. She conceived her work as a metaphor for Claudel’s doomed relationship with Rodin and her ultimate descent into madness. The first work shows a couple swaying in tight embrace; the second a group of dancers about to be engulfed in the titular wave; the third, a sole female figure (the same one who modeled the first, nine years earlier), en route to a backward fall. The piece begins with a flourish and a woozy waltz riff, whose tune and rhythm recur but do not really dominate. The “decline and fall” conclusion is accomplished effectively and economically with doomy portents in lower winds. In between, we were less impressed: for a dance-themed work it proceeded rather much in starts and stops, and we found an off-putting overuse of Bartók pizzicati.

In introducing Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale (sometimes still known by its French title Chant du rossignol), Mr. Pittman averred that it deserves much more play than it gets. Stravinsky took his early opera The Nightingale, based on the familiar Hans Christian Andersen story about the Chinese emperor whose receipt of a mechanical nightingale dimmed his appreciation for the real thing, and from it fashioned, rather than the more-expected suite, a tone poem, which may or may not have been intended to be danced. When completed in 1917, this piece stood on the cusp of Stravinsky’s change in idiom from the lush and colorful soundscapes of his three Diaghilev ballets to the austere neoclassicism to follow. There are, indeed, many reminiscences of the early ballets here, especially Petrushka, and the assignment of characters to instruments: flute for the real nightingale, oboe for the ersatz, with appropriately flowing and stilted music for each. All this is overlaid with some cringe-inducing Chinoiserie but also possesses the clipped phrases and note attacks that look forward to his new style. It is a fascinating work, worth listening to, at least occasionally, and we’re glad Pittman and the NE Phil gave us the occasion to do so. But just as the music falls between two stools, so did the performance—not enough sheen for a Firebird successor, not enough brittleness for a Pulcinella preview. We think they should try it again, when the demands of the rest of the program are not as onerous.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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