in: Reviews

March 2, 2011

Kennedy Nostalgia from New England Philharmonic

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I won’t pretend to know what I’m talking about: my only reference to the Kennedy administration is from episodes of Mad Men, various settings of Barber’s Adagio, and Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony. But even today, the brief years of the presidency hold their echo over the collective American consciousness. It’s this nostalgia seemed to play a large role in the New England Philharmonic’s performance on the evening of Saturday, 26 February 26, at the Tsai Center for the Performing Arts on Boston University’s campus. Most overt, of course, in conductor Richard Pittman’s dedication of the concert to the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address.

Two works on Saturday evening’s program seemed particularly geared to the memory. William Kraft’s A Kennedy Portrait (Conjectures III), pits a narrator (here, David Gullette) reciting portions of the inaugural address against a dystopic orchestral accompaniment. The work is well-meaning enough, but somehow seems to trivialize its content: it seems silly – somehow facile – to have a narrator extol the importance of the arts to an audience sitting in a concert hall. And although the narrative moves on to issues of civil rights and racial equality, somehow the work’s attempts at achieving the profound come off somehow patronizing. Yet despite the content of the narrative, Pittman’s orchestra soared here; revelling in the late-Romantic harmonies, the ensemble supported Gullette’s narrative in richly colored textures.

Late Romanticism continued into Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. Although Pittman’s justification for the work on Saturday’s program seemed anguished (Strauss’s tone poem bears broad humanistic implications; to apply it solely to the life of President Kennedy seems to miss the point), it was hard not to relish the deeply satisfying tones produced by the ensemble. Rich motives from Strauss’s work came to the fore in Saturday evening’s performance, highlighting the narrative in a strong conception of the work.

In addition to these works, the ensemble presented a New England premiere of David Rakowski’s Current Conditions, interweaving of Beethoven’s fifth symphony (of all things) into bawdy ragtime melodies. It’s a fun work – one that integrates the two textures without peering down from an ivory tower. And although the traces, then culmination of Beethoven’s work blended beautifully with the early-twentieth-century themes of the work, somehow, a slower tempo plagued the ragtime, robbing it of its inherent humor.

The same can be said about Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23  inA major, K488, featuring David Deveau at the piano. Pittman tells us that Mozart’s work found its way into the program to commemorate the Kennedy’s support of the arts. The slower adagio of the second movement (a stark f-sharp minor, compared to the sunny A major of its surrounding movements) of the work felt appropriate in Pittman’s staid tempo throughout the piece. But faster movements lost the inherent elegance of Mozart’s writing. Deveau’s piano, in contrast, attempted to push tempi, only to result in a strange discordance between soloist and orchestra; times in the performance, particularly in the allegro assai third movement, found a strange instability between the soloist and ensemble.

Minutiae aside, however, memory was the salient feature of Saturday evening’s concert. The synthesis of music and recollection (both collective and individual, through Pittman’s commentary) painted a poignant portrait of the former president. It’s this memory that was so particularly valuable, that managed to leave its unique impression throughout the concert, and stay with me after I walked away.

Sudeep Agarwala is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He performs with various choral groups throughout Boston and Cambridge.

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