in: Reviews

October 18, 2010

Quotations Galore in Concord Orchestra’s Musical Birthday Party

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“Celebrating Concord’s 375th” was Concord Orchestra’s seasonal opening program on October 15 and 16 at the Friends of Performing Arts building. (I heard the one on the 15th.) Directed by Richard Pittman, the Orchestra was founded in 1969, the same year that he founded Boston Musica Viva. That’s a long time, and the Concord Orchestra plays with verve and pride under his consistent direction and imaginative programming. This concert comprised Henry Brant’s orchestration of the “Hawthorne” movement of Charles Ives’s “Concord Sonata”; Peter Child’s Louisa’s War (that is, Louisa May Alcott’s war); and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, because there are quotations from it in the Ives.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra they are not, nor are they as expert as student orchestras at the major music schools, nor are the players’ instruments altogether of the quality of these orchestras. The Concord Orchestra comprises some sixty-six players, fifteen of whom have been members for over twenty-five years, and one of those for over fifty. Their fast movements are a little square, partly due to Pittman’s conducting in this context, but they seem to relish the opportunities to extend themselves in the slower movements, and there were many very beautiful moments. Community orchestras fulfill a significant musical role, and of the many such orchestras in the Boston metropolitan area, Concord’s is one of the best.

Henry Brant began his orchestration of Ives’s Second Piano Sonata in 1958 and finished it in 1994, at the age of eighty-two; he conducted its première in Ottawa in June, 1995. Critic Alex Ross’s informative article about this in the New York Times the following year is well worth reading. We heard only the second, “Hawthorne,” movement with musical quotations galore. As is well known, Brant had an incredible ear for instrumentation and spacing, here especially in the ragtime section. The piece made a cheerful and bumptious opener in spite of some perhaps unintentional dissonances among the strings.

The high point of the concert was MIT Professor Peter Child’s Louisa’s War, commissioned by the New England Philharmonic Orchestra, which Pittman also conducts, and premièred by them last April. (See BMint’s review here.) The Concord Orchestra was joined by forty-five members of the Concord Women’s Chorus, directed by the gifted Jane Ring Frank. They sang in a clear, well balanced, high tessitura, purposefully contrasting with the low grumble of the orchestra, especially in a long quotation of the hymn, “Abide with Me.” (Earlier we had heard a shorter snippet from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”) Both the Chorus and the narrator, Joyce Kulhawik, presented alternating textual commentary drawn chiefly from Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War journals, when she was a nurse, and also from Longfellow’s poetry, all woven into a gently powerful libretto by Child’s MIT colleague Michael Ouellette. Kulhawik’s narration is generally perfectly cast with her low, rich voice and thoughtful expression. The Orchestra, most of whose members are steeped in the Alcott tradition in Concord, seemed to pour their hearts as well as their skills into this performance for their Concord colleagues, or as Mr. Pittman put it, “our Concord family.” Peter Child has written an “accessible,” as they say, profoundly moving work to mark the human terror of war in general, as well as this particular war.

After intermission the Orchestra gave a rousing exposition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—a bit ragged in places, mostly in the strings; the winds and brasses do just fine, which is unusual in a mix of amateurs and professionals. Even so, the performance seemed very satisfying to the audience, comfortable with this well-known work. “My, that was nice,” could be heard all around as the packed audience moved out to the lobby.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for such a good honest review of our orchestra’s Friday night concert. And thank you BMI
    for the very broad and detailed coverage of area concerts. I would like it to be known that the orchestra’s Beethoven was much tighter and reached greater heights on Saturday night. As the member who has been in the orchestra for 52 years (it actually was founded in 1953) I can certainly testify to the orchestra’s improvement, especially in the last six years, and with the use of very few ringers.

    Comment by Barbara Marden — October 18, 2010 at 6:19 pm

  2. While I appreciate your sending Ms. Davidson to listen to our concert and to write a review, I am very disappointed that she compared our volunteer community orchestra to a full time professional orchestra (and even to an orchestra of music majors at a major music school–where their “job” is to practice all day long.) Those are totally inappropriate comparisons. Both Michael Steinberg and Richard Dyer, experienced Boston Globe music critics, emphasized, in several reviews over the years, the phenomenal aspect of our volunteer community orchestra in achieving outstanding performances while a majority of our volunteers go to a pay-job in a different field for eight hours, five days a week.

    As for “a mix of amateurs and professionals,” we voted a few years ago to change that wording in our By-Laws to read “volunteer musicians and paid musicians.” We respect our many volunteers who
    play on a professional level even though they have chosen careers in other fields.

    I’m glad that Ms. Davidson said, “Community orchestras fulfill a significant musical role…” Concord is still ruled by Town Meeting, and Concord loves having its own organizations continuing its cultural heritage. Louisa May Alcott would be proud, too!

    Comment by Betsy O. Anderson — October 29, 2010 at 5:24 am

  3. Michael Steinberg? That’s going back quite a few years.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 29, 2010 at 7:16 pm

  4. There’s nothing wrong with a community orchestra performance being offered to the paying public. And there’s nothing wrong with a reviewer truthfully presenting what is being sold.

    There is something wrong with feeling insular about spreading the gift of performing music beyond the town walls.

    Comment by Settantenne Amante di Musica — October 30, 2010 at 2:30 am

  5. While I agree with Ms. Davidson that “The Concord Orchestra…seemed to pour their hearts as well as their skills into this performance for their Concord colleagues…,” (for the 375th,) it is also true that this enthusiasm and skill prevails at all of our concerts for audiences from many surrounding towns. In fact, we also played an Eastern European tour a decade ago, way beyond our town walls, and every member contributed funds to pay local musicians in each of four countries to join us in performance! We do not at all feel isolated about spreading the gift of performing music for, and with, neighbors near and far.

    Comment by Betsy O. Anderson — November 11, 2010 at 2:56 am

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