Richard Pittman and his volunteer New England Philharmonic are never shy about bringing new repertoire before the public—it’s the defining feature of their mission to do so in context with traditional fare. On their March 1st program at BU’s Tsai Performance Center, they came forward with one world premiere and one local one, which is just the sort of thing one wishes them to do. What was curious about the program was not the fact that there were two new works to one “old” one (which itself is less than a century old), but that in context the new works had their eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror, while the old one was, although well within established traditions, more forward focused.
Fascinatingly, Pittman started with the old: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 in F Major, Op. 10 by, a work typically reserved for finales. Written in 1925 when the composer was 19, this was his graduation piece from the Petrograd (the once and future St. Petersburg, by way of a long detour into Leningrad) Conservatory. As student symphonies go, this and Ives’s first were probably the two best ever, and while both offer youthful cheekiness, the Shostakovich is distinctive for its innovative construction—sharp contrasts between frivolity, satire and depth, and its closer relation to subsequent mature. It was also well publicized after its premiere and thus catapulted Shostakovich to classical-music stardom. Among its notable features are its mostly light scoring, with relatively few massive tuttis and relatively many solo passages for various instruments, plus a series of duets in the scherzo that make it the original “game of pairs” (back atcha, Bartók). It cleverly reverses the order of themes in the first movement’s recapitulation, uses the timpani as a melody instrument in the last movement, and generally lampoons classical forms and conventions more sharply than did Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony of a decade earlier.
The highlights of the NEP’s performance were the solo passages, chiefly by clarinetist Tammy Avery Gibson, oboe Sandra Ayres, flute Michael Horowitz and Concertmaster pro tempore Dianne Pettipaw. Timpanist Nian Shee Yon and orchestra pianist Patrick Yacono also deserve favorable mention. Pittman, while commanding fine orchestral ensemble and balance, could have been more nuanced in dynamics and more insistent on clarity in the strings. His tempi ran on the fast side, and he kept up relentless beat that sometimes undercut the symphony’s quirky phrasing.
The first half concluded with the premiere of Bernard Hoffer’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, commissioned by NEP for its concertmaster, Danielle Maddon, who took the solo part. Hoffer’s name was not one we immediately recognized, although his concert music has shown up in the Boston area from time to time, most often seemingly in connection with ensembles that Pittman directs. He is best known for his work in television and films (his theme music for the MacNeil-Lehrer Report earned an Emmy nomination). In speaking to the audience before the performance Saturday, Hoffer stressed his objectives in the concerto (which he apparently wrote at breakneck speed) were transparency (he disdainfully noted, all too accurately, that a lot of modern violin concertos make it difficult to hear the violin), virtuosity, and affability. In other words, his aim was to write a good old-fashioned violin concerto, and in this he has substantially succeeded.
In the traditional three movements, fast-slow-fast, Hoffer’s concerto begins with a pithy motif that rises by a third and is promptly followed by one that falls by a fourth, concluding with a lyrical tail motif. The rhythmic and lyrical elements are thus juxtaposed throughout the movement. In an interesting echo of the first movement of the Shostakovich, the music of this movement never builds a consistently flowing line, but breaks off passages to start something new. The brief cadenza, whose introduction by a quotation from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony drew audience guffaws, was a mostly gruff one that Maddon delivered with fierce élan. The slow movement, in traditional ternary form, begins with a haunting duet for violin and harp, lovingly rendered by Maddon and Molly McCaffrey. The atmospherics of this “A” section suggested influences from Barber, while the nocturnal, misterioso B section evoked Bartók. In a nice compositional touch, the return to the A section begins with the theme in the violin to an orchestral accompaniment, and when the music returns to the violin-harp duet, the violin is playing different music. The finale, marked Rondo Scherzando, uses thematic material derived from the opening movement, but that is both livelier and more fluid in movement (the opening theme proper takes a bow at the end). Again we detected references to the Barber concerto, but without its nervous edginess. Hoffer stated (this time in his program note) that he was greatly influenced in his American adolescence (he emigrated from Switzerland) by the Stan Kenton orchestra, especially Kenton’s use of block brass sonorities. These appear throughout the finale, but their prominence is suppressed until one episode, in which they provide punch to a rhythmically aggressive figure.
Maddon was a highly capable soloist. Although she does not possess a big sound, it is sonorous, and in both the rhythmic and the lyrical passages she displayed verve, empathy, phrasing and intonation with impeccable technique. Pittman’s accompaniment was spot on, never overwhelming the soloist but always completing thoughts and clarifying linear and sectional interactions; Gerald Moore at the podium. This concerto is not exceptionally deep, but it has numerous virtues that one would like to explore in repeated hearings.
At the risk of making an already long report intolerably so, it is necessary to devote ample space to the second of the evening’s premieres, this the East Coast debut of Michael Gandolfi’s choral cantata Chesapeake: Summer 1814 (despite the jokey title, there is nothing in this piece to connect it with Barber’s masterpiece Knoxville: Summer 1915), written last year on commission from, and premiered by, the Reno (Nevada) Philharmonic to commemorate the bicentennial, in six months’ time, of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—or at least of Key’s text, the tune of course being an English drinking song originally called “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
Any historical commemorative work faces risks, even ones that don’t hang on a pre-existing theme, which is why so few of them survive as independent concert fare: we remember when Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom had a vogue, and in generations before that, John Alden Carpenter’s Testament of Faith (for the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth) came and went. The decisions confronting the composer receiving this kind of commission wedded to a specific tune are formidable. One can just apply conventional musical transformations to the theme: the tune underlying our national anthem has received attention from some pretty hefty sources (the most interesting responses to it, not counting Puccini’s quotation in Madama Butterfly, are John Knowles Paine’s variations on it, which you can hear here in a performance by Murray Forbes Somerville on the great Boston Music Hall organ now living in Methuen, and Dudley Buck’s concert overture, a rough approximation of which you can hear here). One can create a musical drama abstractly based on the theme and related ones (for example the 1812 Overture and, one hesitates to mention, Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory). The essential problem is one of tone—do you venerate it (think of Beethoven’s variations on “God Save the King”)? Do you satirize it (think of Stockhausen’s Hymnen, and, arguably, Ives’s Variations on “America”)? The folks in Reno proffering the funds would presumably not go for the latter in a big way.
Gandolfi and his collaborator, his frequent librettist Dana Bonstrom, seem to have essayed a neutral ground, by opting for a historical narrative that focuses on the War of 1812 and the events leading up to the assault on Fort McHenry in Baltimore that prompted Key’s poem. In a kind of musical diorama à la Ken Burns, Gandolfi and Bonstrom (with the assistance of students from Lynn High School, who provided images that were screened along with supertitles) worked with music and words of the period to dramatize the history that gave us our anthem (Bonstrom, in remarks before the performance (Gandolfi was absent due to illness) emphasized the role that setting new texts to pre-existing tunes played in popular political conversation in the early Republic).
What this meant in practice was that each of the nine sections or scenes consisted of various tunes of the day (including, we’re happy to report, “Mrs. Madison’s Minuet,” by Alexander Reinagle, one of America’s earliest well-trained composers), either played by the orchestra as stage-setting (as with the Reinagle as the prelude to the invasion of Washington, and “Durang’s Hornpipe” by William Hoffmeister as the illustration of America’s high spirits in the early days of the Republic), or sung by the chorus (the highly effective joined forces of the Simmons College Concert Choir under Danica Buckley and the MIT Concert Choir under William Cutter). In this implementation, tone is not an issue, as this third-party music is stated flatly, as a historical artifact.
So what then about the composer’s own contribution? The work began promisingly with a prologue based on motifs from the SSB, and there was some effectively composed linking music between sections, with themes interlocking to illustrate the action (e.g. Handel’s “See the Conquering Hero Comes” against “Yankee Doodle”) but in too many other cases the voice of Michael Gandolfi was not to be heard, or when it was, as in a couple of battle scenes, it seldom strayed beyond stock effects. We were surprised when the words purportedly uttered by Francis Scott Key to the commander of the British ship in Baltimore Harbor where Key was detained, asking whether the American flag was still aloft Fort McHenry, were spoken rather than set; this can be an effective dramatic effect in the course of an otherwise sung piece, but here it was just another abnegation. The climax of the work, naturally enough, was the singing of the SSB itself, and Gandolfi’s setting was quite a good one, especially in the first verse, sung quietly, whose voicing was impressive and, we’ll aver, compares well with Beethoven’s voicing of “God Save the King” at the beginning of his variations. The chorus sang all four verses, each progressively louder, and then, in a lapse into bathos, the audience was asked to stand and sing verse 1 (in a pretty impossible key for most voices), to screened images from modern times, sports events, July Fourth Pops and all that.
Pittman, the chorus and orchestra could not be faulted, as balance and pacing appeared well judged and the orchestra handled the occasionally tricky passages deftly. Gandolfi’s orchestration was colorful and sonorous. From other work of his we have heard, we know him to be a highly talented composer. Our objections to this piece are aesthetic and, in a sense, moral: an artist needs a point of view—for, against, equivocal, ironic, jocular, celebratory—and this work didn’t appear to have one. For what it’s worth, the audience seemed as puzzled at that as we were, applauding with their hands and questioning with their eyebrows.