IN: Reviews

NE Phil’s “Play It By the Numbers” Adds Up


It was a dark and stormy night last Saturday, October 29, yet an intrepid group of instrumentalists and audience members were on hand in BU’s Tsai Performance Center for the first of the New England Philharmonic’s 2011-12 four-concert subscription series. Following a long-established pattern of unusually challenging and rewarding programs, Pittman and his 60-plus players presented two New England premieres and two masterworks from 1945, a full bill for any instrumental ensemble to offer in one evening, especially one wholly constituted of volunteer professional, non-professional, and student players. Only the orchestra’s concertmistress, the immensely talented Danielle Maddon is paid – and rightly – for her indispensable leadership. And lucky indeed the ensemble which can field two musicians of such high-minded musicianship as Maddon and Pittman. Surely it is the combined talents of these two that attracts these players who willingly give of their time and abilities.

“By the numbers” describes the compositional schemes of Michael Gandolfi (b. 1956) and Michael-Thomas Foumai (b. 1987), both of whom gave helpful and informed pre-performance explanations of their music from the stage. Gandolfi’s Of Angels and Neurones, dating from 2009 but having its first Boston performance, came from the composer’s fascination with research related to the brainwave patterns that occur during the five stages of sleep. In his excellent program notes, available on the NE Philharmonic’s website, he pays particular homage to the work of Dr. J. Allan Hobson, in particular that researcher’s From Angels to Neurones: Art and The New Science of Dreaming (2007). Gandolfi’s music is set in seven continuous sections, each with a title such as “Stage Wake,” “Stage II (K-complexes and Sleep Spindles),” “Stage V – REM Sleep.” Each of the seven sections’ music was driven by the composer’s observation of charts of brainwave sleep-pattern printouts. This may sound a bit “out there” to the reader of these lines, but Mr. Gandolfi’s musical reflections of these brainwave charts were consistently engaging and entertaining, especially with the help of the composer’s program notes in hand. His sound characteristics are of an active American neo-classic style, quite diatonic, played in this case in a long uninterrupted arc of about twenty minutes duration. I found the music skillfully constructed, admirably orchestrated, and clearly descriptive of its brainwave charts. The orchestra gave a bright and presumably accurate reading of this lively music, with Pittman and Maddon giving incisive and readable direction from their respective positions.

After this bracing opening, Pittman moved to the first of the two 1945 compositions of the evening, the Piano Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra (1945) by Béla Bartók. Stephen Drury was the admirable soloist, whose playing of this last work penned by Bartók was pellucid, accurate, wonderfully nuanced, fiery and atmospheric. Yes, all of that, for this work asks for all of this and more. Often cited as the most accessible of the composer’s three piano concertos, it is nonetheless filled with abundant demands of the pianist’s virtuosity and imagination. Bartók’s great interest in Hungarian folk music is audible in the work’s first and third movements, and Drury played those moments with great dash and élan. The second movement is notable for its inward direction, its chorale-like writing reflecting the composer’s“Andante religioso”; here, as elsewhere, Drury and the orchestra were hand-in-glove in their exposition of the score. The concerto’s third movement was left unfinished because of the composer’s unfortunate and untimely passing, due to leukemia. The composer’s apprentice Tibor Serly appended the movement’s final seventeen measures, following Bartók’s sketchy notations, with, some claim, help from Eugene Ormandy. These and all of the pure Bartókian measures were sparklingly essayed by Drury, who surely made as strong a case for this wonderful music as one could imagine. Enthusiastic bravos from the audience rewarded him and Pittman.

After intermission Michael-Thomas Foumai’s The Light-Bringer (Symphony No. 1) (2010) was given a strong reading. As Mr. Foumai’s program notes state,“The title of this piece is taken from the translation of Lucifer’s Latin name, meaning Light-Bringer…The work is based on manipulations of the Number of the Beast, 666 (Revelation 13:17-18) …for the purposes of this work I understood it as being a representation of Lucifer. The number six is embedded within the structure ….”

This music was the winner of the New England Philharmonic’s admirable annual “Call for Scores,” and it too exhibits a very solid construction of compositional elements and canny orchestration, relying heavily on block sonorities. Echoes of the styles of music by Alan Hovhaness, Leonard Bernstein, Carl Ruggles, John Adams, and Silvestre Revueltas were apparent to me, though Foumai’s music is clearly his own. Of brief duration, it packs a wallop, and it was intriguing to listen for the composer’s permutations of the number 6 permeate the music as the work progressed.

Pittman chose Stravinsky’s challenging 1945 Symphony in Three Movements to close the evening. The orchestra gave a brave reading of this difficult score. It was clear to me, though, that this thorny and immensely tricky to play music was a bit too much of a challenge for this intrepid band, especially at the end of such a very demanding program. That being said, these players are a brave bunch, and they managed to skate through with a minimum of mishaps. Kudos is due to them all for taking it on. And as was the case throughout the entire evening, Pittman led with great clarity and assurance. This evening, for the most part, all the numbers added up.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 31 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 32 years. Spectrum Singers’s upcoming concert is on November 12.


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  1. The music was too difficult for the group.  Being a person who has played with the NEP, the rehearsals are not efficient because too much time is spent rehearsing individual or section issues rather than ensemble related ones.  It would be much better if after a read through of the pieces that sectionals were held for the next rehearsal.  Personally, I think the group needs to go back to some more standard repertoire to work on balance, sound, intonation, and overall ensemble playing.  No disrespect to the concertmistress, but knowing that she is being paid for what she does is an insult.  Although I’m sure she is not being paid much, her leadership is displayed in a way that is not effective and disruptive to the rehearsal.  She only has leadership for the strings, and ofter comes off quite brash to other instruments (which she is clearly not familiar with).  Her leadership should be shown by mentoring the strings during sectionals and from her musicality.  I don’t think either were achieved.  Regardless, I give credit to all the musicians that put forward the effort voluntarily to make music.  Mr.  Pittman does a great job and puts out the best concert he can with what he has to work with.  Difficult music to play is also difficult music to listen to.  A more ‘crowd-pleasing’ program would draw more of a crowd which means more money for the group.  

    Comment by BrassPlayer — November 1, 2011 at 3:49 pm

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