On a rainy afternoon, on December 12, two hundred people, including many well-behaved children and babies, warmed up at the Tsai Performance Center at BU for a one-hour concert by the New England Philharmonic Orchestra, a fine ensemble of volunteer instrumentalists who take music seriously. Music director and conductor Richard Pittman noted in the program that the first and last pieces are about young people, while Prokofiev wrote and performed his first piano concerto at age 20. Copland’s El Salon Mexico was no doubt partly inspired by the dancing and effervescence of young Mexicans in the famous dance hall El Salon Mexico, from which the piece takes its name.
The concert began with the Overture to Hansel and Gretel. Engelbert Humperdinck (not the American who sang After the Lovin’) was a disciple of Wagner, and knew how to orchestrate. He had a great gift for melody, harmony, and rhythm. Some say that Hansel and Gretel is Wagner’s best opera! Having studied for two years in Hamburg, Pittman has good insights with German music, and pointed out that the trumpet call is the signal for a magic spell cast by Hansel and Gretel, which frees the gingerbread children from the witch’s curse. The piece begins with horns (led by Jeff Stewart) and winds, well-played by the enthusiastic NEPO. Strings then join in warmly. The ensemble was well balanced. Pittman, like James Levine, places the second violins on the opposite side of the firsts, which lends a stereophonic effect.
Preceding the Copland, the conductor mentioned that El Salon Mexico had three rooms for dancing: one for the elegantly dressed, another for those with shoes, and a third for those with no shoes! The tune El Mosco (the mosquito) is quoted, with the music depicting a slap, and the flying away of the mosquito — demonstrated with the orchestra (trumpet, pizzicato strings, and clarinet (Tammy Gibson). Piano and Latin percussion (guiro, woodblock) are also present. The huapango rhythm, an alternation between a two- and a three- feel, is common, as well as much syncopation and rhythmic changes, which make the orchestra and conductor work hard. Copland’s harmonic turns, for instance G Major to E Major, especially at the end, add wonderful color. The trumpet (Jimi Michiel) is featured, as in mariachi music. Next time you visit Mexico City, go to Plaza Garibaldi in the evening, and you’ll find lots of smartly-dressed mariachi trumpet players with sombreros. Another clever moment that sounds like a combo starting to play features solo double bass (John Clark) and violin (Danielle Maddon), joined by another solo violin, viola, and cello (John Lyneis, Jaime Doyle, and Jason Coleman). Aaron Copland loved visiting Mexico; in fact, he wrote extensively about musical life in Latin America, sponsored by the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and later by the State Department.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 featured Mackenzie Melemed, the fifteen-year-old winner of NEPO’s Young Artist Competition. He humbly and happily ambled to the piano, wearing a striking red vest and bow tie. Not in the least nervous, he played the technical passages with flair, aided by a relaxed approach to the piano. Balance between soloist and orchestra (which plays an active role) was good, and clearly there was cooperation between soloist and conductor. The second movement is lyric and beautiful, and segues into the third without pause. Mr. Melemed played cleanly and spiritedly in the cadenzas. The finale contains a driving rhythm, and concludes with the return of the theme from the opening of the first movement, as mentioned in Dr. Raymond Rosenstock’s program notes.
Richard Cornell’s Umai’s Journey concluded the concert. Cornell, a fixture in Boston musical life, was a member of Composers in Red Sneakers (1981), and is currently a professor at Boston University. Written in 1996 and revised in 2006, it was narrated clearly and sweetly by Joyce Kulhawik, former Arts and Entertainment critic for CBS-Boston. 43 members of the Pals Children’s Chorus, which is conducted by Alysoun Kegel, looked like seasoned professionals, well-dressed with blue silk shirts, and singing with very good pitch. The composer’s program note explains that Umai is a girl from the Yurok Indian tribe. The entire story can be found in Theodora Kroeber’s book, The Inland Whale. It tells a gentle story about the world seen through Umai’s eyes. What a nice idea to set a Native American story! This well-orchestrated piece was richly tonal, with some intriguing rhythms and contemporary melodic lines in the winds. Solo flute (Mana Washio) is featured, and the Pals Children’s Chorus, with their excellent diction, sang and occasionally clapped rhythmically. Cornell illustrates the text musically. For example, when the narrator says “faster and faster” the orchestra follows with a rapid melodic figure. Percussion parts occasionally repeat a pattern in the background, ad lib. Richard Pittman is in his element with new music; those who play under him are aware that he spends the required hours studying his scores. It was nice to see the children in the audience paying close attention to the narration of this unfamiliar story.
To conclude, everyone present spent a memorable hour in the Tsai Center enjoying this wonderful concert. Afterward, children were invited onstage to a petting zoo. NEPO’s next concert is on Saturday, February 26, 8 PM, at the Tsai Center