This season the plucky Concord Orchestra celebrates its 61st season of concerts played to an enthusiastic audience of Concordians and abutting Metro-Westers.
As the orchestra’s program book reads, the Orchestra was “…Founded in 1953 by a group of folks with day jobs who wanted to play music together.” This enthusiastic local orchestra now numbers 70 musicians who meet weekly “…to explore wonderful music with our exceptional Music Director Richard Pittman.” Pittman obviously enjoys his role in Concord, as he has been at the Orchestra’s helm since 1969. Pittman is well known to Boston area music lovers as he also leads the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva. Common to all of these ensembles is Pittman’s clear-headed and ever-wise decision making about interpretive issues and a straightforward easy-to-read conducting technique, eschewing flamboyance for clarity of intent at every opportunity. This was abundantly evident in his concert in Concord this past Friday evening. The concert was given again the following evening.
The “hook” of these concerts was the presentation of the Orchestra’s annual Ehlers Young Artist Competition winner. The competition is open to musicians of high school age or younger who live in Eastern Massachusetts. A panel of orchestra members and the Music Director chooses the winner. The winner also receives a cash prize from the Ehlers Memorial Scholarship fund. A remarkable violinist named Kent William Hisada is this year’s honoree.
Friday’s program opener was William Schuman’s admirable New England Triptych, a 1956 work that employs a hymn tune by William Billings as a starting point for each movement. “Be Glad then, AMERICA” (sic) sets the tone for this alternately vigorous and contemplative exposition of New England Americana. Crisp playing by the members of the Orchestra, led by Pittman who adopted ideal tempi, enriched the aural experience. The work’s middle movement – an inward-looking meditation on When Jesus Wept – is the spiritual core of this work, and it received an appropriately reverent reading, with particularly sensitive playing given its bassoon solos by Bill Moran. Surely this short piece is among Schuman’s most beautiful music. A brisk and spiky reading of “Chester,” a William Billings hymn the Revolutionary Continental Army adapted—and adopted—as a rousing call-to-arms marching tune brought this bracing concert opener to a brilliant conclusion, abetted by crisp percussion playing from Mike Dettorre, Derek Hayden, and Kevin Dacey. Alan Yost was the intrepid timpanist, who played one of Schuman’s favorite instruments with rhythmic and tonal aplomb.
The formidable Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was up next, and a remarkable performance of it was given by Hisada. This violinist—all of 15-years-old—amazed everyone in the hall with his abundant gifts of technique and fulgent tone. Not for one moment did he seem fazed by the music’s manifold challenges. Indeed, he played with astonishing accuracy and gleamingly bright tone, with careful attention to dynamics and an already knowing sense of rubato. If one closed one’s eyes, one would have imagined a professional of long-standing playing on stage, so complete was this young man’s embrace of this concerto’s twists and turns. His playing of the treacherous harmonics specified by Tchaikovsky was especially notable.
Hisada presents something of a cipher visually. He plays totally poker-faced, no matter what emotional or physical opportunities may present. Though I surely don’t care for distracting histrionics from soloists, I do appreciate seeing an occasional smile or visible softening in a player’s mien when a particularly beautiful passage is artfully essayed, but there was none of this from Mr. Hisada. He was all business from his first bow stroke to his last, and I can’t say that isn’t an admirable trait for a young musician on the cusp of a career. Ultimately, one was genuinely moved by the clear-headed accuracy he brought to his seemingly effortless playing of this wonderful music. May he go on to a brilliant career!
The concert’s second half was occupied by Antonin Dvořák’s splendid Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World. Pittman essayed this work with brisk tempi throughout, so there was no sense of dawdling whatsoever, even in this symphony’s cherishable second movement, where the moving English Horn solo was beautifully played by Barbara Shinn-Cunningham. Other handsome woodwind playing was heard from Moran again and flautists Susan Jackson and Marsha Westerberg. While one might have wished for a bit more flexibility from Pittmann, I definitely prefer his approach in this piece to others who take every opportunity to stretch and pull this music too far from its inner pulse.
So, here was a regional orchestra, focused and intent, led by a seasoned professional, offering a concert of challenging music that may have stretched the players a bit, but of an end result that was cheering and uplifting. And, we were witness to a clearly gifted young violinist surmounting with talent and panache one of the repertoire’s most challenging concertos. For a Friday evening’s entertainment in Concord, what more could one want?