In its Boston debut on Friday, September 28th in Old South Church Symphony Nova, formerly Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra, presented a striking concert of Dvorak, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn. It was also a double feature: both Elgar and soloist Sarina Zhang were on the program twice. In fact, the program was titled “Soloist, Soloist.”
Symphony Nova members include some of the best young professionals in the Boston area, many originally from abroad. Conductor Lawrence Isaacson’s vision was to provide its young players with professional experience before they move on to major orchestras.
With the 65 players disposed on an extended stage in Old South’s sanctuary, Antonin Dvorak’s Carnival Overture began the program. The second section of the overture included well played solos by English hornist Mary Cicconetti, oboist Grace Shryock, clarinetist Robyn Cho, flutist Ona Jonaityte, and bassoonist Michelle Keem. There was an enthusiastic drive to the end, including good piccolo work by Ashley Addington and formidable playing by the brass section. Percussion might have been a little quieter, at least for those of us seated toward the front.
The performance of Edward Elgar’s Dream Children, a short, two-movement piece composed in 1902 captured the work’s lyric, sensual quality, with beautiful playing in the woodwinds, especially by clarinetist Cho, accompanied by muted strings. The first movement, in G Minor, ends in G Major, the same key of the second movement. Toward the end of that movement, Elgar quotes the beginning of the first, again in G Minor, then ends back in G Major. The composer employs the same change of mode often in the Enigma Variations, which also begins in G Minor and ends in G Major. Dream Children, which is considered impressionistic yet also reminiscent of Dvorak, was played expressively by the strings. One hears a similar style in Elgar’s Serenade for Strings of 1892.
Debuting with Symphony Nova, 16-year-old Sarina Zhang performed Variations on a Rococo Theme by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky’s theme is original, but in Rococo style. Zhang played reliably, with excellent technique and intonation, though she could at times have played louder. The orchestra’s melancholy opening had a true Russian sound. Hornist Clark Matthews played a nice solo in the introduction. The alternating between strings and woodwinds was well done, and Variation VII was touching.
After intermission, soloist Zhang returned to the stage, this time as piano soloist for Mendelssohn’s Capriccio Brilliante. She was as solid and accurate on piano as on cello. Here, her rhythmical playing and articulation came across well. Her left-hand scales were impressive, as were her right-hand octaves. Capriccio Brillante begins in B Major, though it moves to the key of B Minor, among others. The accompaniment of pizzicato strings and sustained woodwinds was well articulated. The next section in B Minor sounds Beethovenian, with the addition of trumpets and timpani. Isaacson handled the dynamic contrasts well. There was an F-sharp Major section that had the light flavor of the composer’s Italian Symphony. After a return to B Major, the piece ends in B Minor, not unlike the modal shifts employed in the Elgar and Tchaikovsky pieces.
Isaacson reminded us that the enigma remains enigmatic. Elgar associated each of the 14 variations with individuals, which Isaacson illustrated with telling variety. The composer incorporates everything from a storm with rain, wind, and thunder, to a bulldog barking and falling down a hill, and even a boat put-putting — thanks to coins placed on the timpani drums. In the 13th variation, he includes the theme from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture. Elgar’s 14th and final variation is the longest and most grandiose.
The playing in the Enigma Variations was the best of the evening, with rich horn chords from Clark Matthews, Marina Krickler, Nick Rubinstein, and Joe Walker blending perfectly. Compliments also to the low brass section: trombonists Chris Reade, Matthew Luhn, Phil Hyman, and tubist Jobey Wilson. Violas had their moments as well, though all strings achieved a rich, unified sound. The optional organ part, played on Old South’s E.M. Skinner by Harry Huff was a nice touch, though a bit too loud and nasal in the bass.
Future Symphony Nova concerts this season (in Boston and the Neponset Valley) include Stringsational! featuring works by the Massachusetts-based Osvaldo Golijov, Mozart, and Beethoven; Play Ball, a pops concert (one of Isaacson’s specialties); and SSSSymphony featuring music of Prokofiev, Boston composer Michael Gandolfi and others