To celebrate important milestones in the classical music life of the Connecticut River / Pioneer Valley, the UMass-Amherst Fine Arts Center concert hall Saturday night was the venue for the final performance of the 75th season of the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and conductor Paul Phillips’s 20th season as music director. They were joined for the concluding work of the evening’s program by the Hampshire Choral Society directed by Allan Taylor (who sang with the bass section), completing its 61st season. The program also featured the world première of a new composition by Phillips.
The theme was the sea, and the program opened with the world première of Wave, completed just a couple of weeks before. Phillips had planned to commission something from another composer, but things didn’t work out and he found himself with composition time as well. The death of a close friend made him redirect the original plan for the piece to make it commemorate three recently deceased friends by incorporating bits of music that evoked them as well as fit the theme. Wave is a modern tonal work for full orchestra with some instruments that are infrequently heard: almglocken (Alpine cowbells) and 12 tuned Thai gongs, the latter arrayed in the rear balcony. The 10-minute work creates an oceanic atmosphere effectively, evoking the energy and movement of water.
Wave was followed by Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan, composed originally for piano, the central movement of his 1905 five-movement Miroirs. Debussy’s La Mer was written in 1905 too, so there was perhaps something salty in the air of the time? It also is impressionistic of the sea, but without exotic instruments, cleverly using harp and piano, brass and winds, with shimmering strings suggesting the play of light on water, all with carefully crafted dynamics to suggest the sea’s power.
After a pause to rearrange the percussion instrumentalists and allow the 160 members of the combined choruses to come on stage, creating an ocean of white blouses and shirts cresting behind the black garb of the instrumentalists, we moved on to the major work of the evening: Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony (his no. 1), composed 1903-09, premièred in 1910, infrequently performed today. RVW went to France during its composition to study orchestration with Ravel, so was undoubtedly familiar with Une barque and and influenced by the style of his teacher (and subsequent lifelong friend).
The symphony is lush, late-Romantic, recognizably English, meaning different from similar Germanic works, its massive forces seeking to obtain impressive though not overwhelming effects. Like many works by the country’s composers at the end of the Victorian era, it culminates in a universally transcendent religious viewpoint that is not an epiphany. It is in four movements, entitled “A Song for all seas, all ships,” “On the Beach at Night Alone,” Scherzo. The Waves,” and “The Explorers,” and there is choral singing throughout, with soloists silent only in the third one. Boston soprano Natalie Polito and baritone David Kravitz filled those roles. The texts were taken from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
This concert was well-crafted, tightly knit, enjoyable and impressive, with accurate, crisp, precise instrumental performances. Built during the poured-concrete craze of American architecture and referred to by many as the bunker, the vast hall makes choral diction crisp and clear, easier to understand at lower levels than forte or fortissimo, when the sound is just a mass. With the soloists it was always easy to understand the text, the low voice easier than the high one. But it is not otherwise a hall that favors classical music.
PVSOC has a reputation as one of the country’s longest-lived community orchestras and one of its finest, having received awards and recognition for longevity, programming, success-on-a-shoestring, and loyal following. It is 100% volunteer: although some musicians have professional-level training, none earns a living in music. It always draws a sizable audience of multiple generations, often including young children, and plays in various venues around the valley, not only school auditoriums but also Northampton’s 1892 Academy of Music, the country’s first municipally owned opera house (which employs its original hemp rigging). It also focuses on contemporary music. PVSOC is therefore a living testament to the ability to attract listeners without programming repertoire chestnuts.
(Disclosure: As a member of these choruses, including in combined performance with baritone soloist Kravitz, I have experienced firsthand Phillips’s careful shaping of the music and his precise direction and cuing. The appreciation his musicians and audiences show him is sincere and well-deserved.)