in: Reviews

May 3, 2011

Pittman’s Canny Intelligence at Work Yet Again

by

At the beginning of the New England Philharmonic’s April 30 concert at the Tsai Performance Center, Music Director Richard Pittman made several announcements, one of which was that NEP had just received, and not for the first time, the ASCAP Adventurous Programming Award. There is no doubt that Pittman and the NEP deserve awards like that; they are among the most imaginative presenters in Boston, as their Saturday program demonstrated. They performed works covering the last forty years by Andy Vores, Donald Erb and Earl Kim (his Violin Concerto, with soloist Danielle Maddon), together with the century-old but still amazing Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony. However good for garnering awards, and however rewarding for those who attend, adventurous programming did not, at least in this case, translate into box office gold, as the Tsai was rather sparsely populated (at least where the audience sits). Too bad for the stay-at-homes or those who chose instead to subject themselves to another dismal Red Sox game.

The program might have seemed a bit random to some casual observers, but there was a canny intelligence at work. The evening opened with the newest piece, a 2003 movement by Andy Vores, written originally for NEP, and called at  that time G Major. It has since taken on a second life as the first movement of Vores’s Antimpony (anti-symphony, get it?), in which position it has been renamed Open. The work’s original title is, like a good deal of the musical content, a bit of a joke: while in several senses the work is about G major, it is not actually in it, and its final two chords are G major and D7, meaning that one is left hanging for a resolution. The music of the piece is mostly like that as well, full of passages sounding like they’re about to settle on something — a chord, a tune, a cadence, whatever — and never actually doing it. There are many gestures, ostinati that hold things together, cross-cuts, and an overall A-B-A structure. The final section has a whiff of Petrushka about it, but it is overall a witty, slick and entertaining amuse-bouche. Pittman and his band kept everything humming quite satisfactorily.

A much (much!) heavier course followed, in the form of the late Donald Erb’s Concerto for Brass and Orchestra, written in 1986 for the Chicago Symphony, whose legendary brass section was exploited knowingly by the composer, himself a classical and jazz trumpeter. Its exploration of brass sonorities, often in allied pairs as well as in solos (there are cadenzas for tuba, French horn, and trumpet) and in sectional blocs, is, however, anything but lighthearted. It starts slowly and builds in big dissonant chordal units with toccata-like joining passages. It reminded us a bit of the late Ralph Shapey, especially in the thickness of the scoring, which alas often undermined the coloristic effects, some of which were quite lovely, and not all of them for brass. The central movement comes to focus on a funereal Lutheran chorale tune, Alle Menschen müssen sterben, surrounded by a lovely halo of string runs, and eventually overwhelmed by strongly articulated percussion and winds. By and by, the Lutherans get tipsy and slide under the table. (Had they accidentally stumbled into an Irish wake?) The trumpet cadenza in the third and final movement is the most elaborate of the three, and the run-up to the end displays a sudden clarity of texture and harmony, and a punchiness of rhythm, theretofore largely lacking.

The performance, considering the NEP’s mix of professional, amateur, and student performers, was pretty good, but the NEP is no match for the CSO, and certainly not its signature brass section. The three cadenza-bearing players, tuba Tim Sliski, horn Jeff Stewart and especially trumpet Jason Huffman, acquitted themselves with distinction.

The late Earl Kim spent the latter part of his teaching career at Harvard and was a greatly respected member of the Boston musical community. His compositional personality, as typified by the 1979 Violin Concerto, was very nearly the polar opposite to Erb’s. This was elegant, refined, restrained, gentle music, sort of a Delius to Erb’s Berlioz. Kim’s idiosyncratic serialism focuses more on the hexachord (the six-note module containing half the chromatic spectrum) than the full twelve pitches to the octave — a half-Babbitt, one might say. The violin’s opening melody, which underpins the entire piece, is made up of only three pitches. The sonorities are mostly spare and pointillistic after a fashion, with occasional full-orchestra punctuation. When we say that Kim’s serialism is idiosyncratic, we mean among other things that he is not afraid to include purely diatonic scalar passages and some exquisitely sweet harmonies (we’re sure all these things fit into the serial structure, but that’s a screen we’d rather not lift). This is a wonderful, engaging work that should be better known.

Maddon, the NEP’s regular concertmaster (she was back in position for the second half of the program!) evinced warmth and brought a solid musicality to her interpretation of the solo part. Hers is not a supremely polished or powerful sound, and we thought her staccatos in the first-movement cadenza were a bit too mechanistic, but she held her own and was a persuasive leader of and collaborator with the orchestra. Under Pittman’s direction, the NEP was highly empathetic and thoroughly in sync with Kim’s esthetic.

We wondered where all the Mahler fans were on Saturday: the Tenth Symphony, of which he completed only one movement and sketched and scored the other four in varying degrees of fullness, is rarely performed, and is as deep and dark a piece as one could ever want from the hand of this master. Needless to say, with his penchant for later modern music, Pittman made much, in the program notes and his viva voce introduction, of the “modernity” of Mahler’s harmonies in the Tenth‘s opening Adagio, and the high esteem in which Mahler held Arnold Schoenberg. One can carry this a bit too far, though; Mahler had definite views on the limits of chromaticism and famously rejected the drift of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1. The “big moment” in the Mahler, of course, is the stark and unresolved dissonance at the heart of the movement, but that moment’s musical and emotional context fully integrates it with the tonal fabric of the piece, just as Beethoven similarly did in the Eroica. What impresses one in hearing what there is of the Tenth (not counting the more or less speculative performing versions and completions by Deryck Cooke, the Matthews Brothers and others) is the extraordinary spareness of the texture, notwithstanding the typically Mahlerian scale of the orchestra (the NEP’s ensemble was comparatively undersized).

Be all this as it may, Pittman and the NEP deserve credit for undertaking such a project, which cleverly book-ended Vores’s cheekily unresolved gestures with Mahler’s über-Romantic ones. It is fair to say that Pittman is not one of your great Mahler conductors, though he is by no means a bad one. His lines were well shaped, his tempi were well chosen, and the climaxes were convincing. Unlike the Kim’s, the Mahler’s spareness of scoring exposed many weaknesses of execution, especially in the strings (the winds an brass, however, came through with flying colors). It was a long, complicated program, and something had to give. It was, however, a wonderful opportunity to hear this too-seldom-programmed work, and to realize that every once in a while one can forgo the Liebestod and have something else every bit as moving that won’t take any longer to play.

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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