The New Hampshire Music Festival, performing at Plymouth State University, last weekend offered its penultimate program of the season, “A Diva, A Don, and A Symphony,” with impressive results.
Each of the six programs this summer has been led by a different conductor, with a Beethoven symphony or a piano concerto featured on each program. Kudos to the leadership of the NH group for often choosing young, up-and-coming musicians, both on the podium and in soloist slots: this not only yields some splendid music-making, but presumably helps balance the budget in these tight economic times.
Courtney Lewis was on the podium on Friday evening, August 10, and he left no doubt from the first downbeat that he has abundant energy, perception, and interpretive gifts far beyond what one might expect from a 26-year-old. His Northern Irish upbringing was nurtured at Cambridge University in England, and he is now Assistant Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as Music Director of Boston’s Discovery Ensemble. He also spent two years in Boston as Benjamin Zander’s assistant.
Poulenc’s Gloria led off the program, with the New Hampshire Festival Symphonic Chorus and Karin Wolverton, soprano. Wolverton brought just the right sense of color and drama to Poulenc’s curious and interesting score, balancing very well with the orchestra and chorus. It is impressive to hear a chorus this good up in “them thar woods,” and I do not mean that condescendingly at all: it struck me that these fine and loyal singers come from towns all over the state. The singers were ably trained by Joel Johnson. If a few of the choral basses seemed here and there in the fortissimos to come in just a hair before the beat, it is better that than after the beat, and it was also clear that Lewis pays attention to, appreciates, and treats the chorus with the ear and eye of a former Cambridge choral scholar. While the orchestra as a whole rose to the challenges of this work, the woodwinds, so beautiful in the rest of the program, at first seemed a bit ill at ease, improving with each movement. Lewis’ tempos seemed just right; and Poulenc’s music, which to me seems “tongue-in-cheek” (and delightfully-so), made a perfect curtain raiser.
Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, set with solos, chorus, and orchestra to the sublime poetry of George Herbert, received compelling and sumptuous performance by baritone Christopheren Nomura. Lewis was with the richly experienced Nomura at every turn, and the baritone wove a thread of moving intensity into every line, taking us to the very heart of these surpassing poems and the music that illuminates it ever further. It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful performance of this work.
The second half of the program brought Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in a delightfully youthful interpretation by Maestro Lewis, one that took no prisoners, especially in the concluding movement. The famous second movement was especially well conceived, sounding just “right” to these ears. If we might have smelled a few more roses along the way, this is a symphony that truly has no “slow movement,” and it was an express train with engineer Lewis in the cab that never even gave a hint of slipping off the rails. Although I’d be interested to hear him conduct it in 10 years, I couldn’t get the image out of my mind that Beethoven was smiling down on this talented, dynamic, and compelling young conductor. Definitely a person to watch in the years to come, and for much more than his matinee-idol looks. Perhaps the only orchestral shortcoming in the Beethoven was occasional balance between the strings and winds, which tended to predominate. This was likely the result of a smallish string section, that a result of the tight economic times. The orchestra is composed of musicians from all over the country, and it is an impressive group, many of whom have played for repeated seasons.
The concluding programs of the Festival will be offered this coming weekend, and let us hope that this worthy and well-run organization will continue to flourish for many years to come.