“Personal” and “quirky” aren’t the first descriptors one would expect to apply to a symphony concert. However, this was the mood that the Brookline Symphony cultivated on a warm early-summer evening last Sunday, May 20th, at All Saints’ Parish Church in Brookline. The small, graceful, and resonant space combined with the evident enthusiasm of the orchestra and its affable director, Adam Boyles, to offer a pleasant program consisting of one rarely-performed piece and one old favorite.
The lesser-known work was the second symphony of Carl Nielsen, whose orchestral writing is somewhat eclipsed by the bravado of his fellow Scandinavian Jean Sibelius. Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2, subtitled “The Four Temperaments,” is not exactly program music, though it takes as its inspiration the obsolete but strangely magnetic Hippocratic theory of biology. Who can’t help but be drawn in by the thought of such evocative substances as black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood vying for the upper hand in our capricious bodies — or, as the slightly less ancient theory of psychology holds, exerting sway over the puzzling ingredients of our emotional makeup? Nielsen’s own notes on the symphony’s inspirations and connotations, fortunately supplied in the program book, contain disarmingly witty narratives about the medieval picture that led to the work’s inception and the archetypes that coalesced behind each movement (“one who regrets his irascibility”… “he might well rock his hips in a slow waltz rhythm”… “a person who storms thoughtlessly on in the belief that the whole world belongs to him and that roast pigeons fly into his mouth…”) Both Nielsen’s words and notes reveal a uniquely original mind, a quality which Boyles and the orchestra grasped with heart and relish.
The first movement, “Allegro collerico,” opened with a swashbuckling brass flourish à la Don Juan. Nielsen’s brass-heavy writing is a good fit for the Brookline Symphony’s tight and well-balanced section, which had ample opportunity to display its collective chops, discipline, and gusto throughout the piece. Even after the furor had given way to a fugal figure growing ominously from the low strings, short stentorian spurts from (rotating, as all the principals) trumpeter Jason Huffman and trombonist Paul Fleming emerged with clarity and brilliance. Woodwinds also got their (slightly less bombastic) due, Carol Louik’s soothing oboe solo and Laura Bouix’s snappy piccolo holding their own among the surrounding maelstrom. “Allegro comodo e flemmatico” began with rhythmic undulations in the strings, lush but vague for a while until the compound meter came into focus. Julia Leroux-Lindsey’s lazy horn melody perfectly evoked the scene of shimmering heat and slow-moving water Nielsen described, as did the gradual layering of celli and clarinet over an extended bassoon duet.
The “Andante malincolico” prolonged the sultry mood, with more plaintive woodwind solos over hypnotic eddies in the strings. Boyles’s sensitive touch in guiding the orchestra through the shifting currents of Nielsen’s score — deceptively simple figures overlapping, aligning, and resolving into unexpected harmonies — was constantly apparent. He used his arms to gesture and sign as if shoulder-deep in the brew of the music, stirring up one section while calming another, eliciting a shade more sting or an extra wave of velvet to combat the tendency of the acoustic towards turgidity. The third movement segued into a distinctly Northern style of gloominess before countering with more Straussian brass — here Boyles seemed to be channeling the Angel of Death — before a dramatic minor-key cadence and a forgiving coda. The final movement, “Allegro sanguineo,” brought a smile to my face with its brash “oom-pah” beat and galloping violins, who gamely mustered their swagger against the loud instruments behind them. A slurred, descending eighth-note figure from former malincolico times made a return in a more carefree guise. And like the concealing bluster of Nielsen’s cocky prototype, the music faltered into a last layered string interlude before things got rolling again into the triumphant close.
Getting acquainted with Nielsen’s offbeat and plucky symphony was a pleasure. The second half of the program offered the different pleasure of basking in familiar romantic melodies: those of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which featured 19-year-old MIT student Ryan Liu. Boyles and the orchestra supported Liu sensitively but spiritedly as he navigated the cascades of notes and passages of soul-baring rhapsody. The piece’s most satisfying moments came when pianist and orchestra united, with clear joy in Rachmaninoff’s grand melodic sweeps evident throughout. The triumphantly romantic apotheosis of the final movement was especially and deservedly moving, leaving the audience as plainly thrilled as the players.