in: Reviews

October 19, 2014

Laboratory of Unexpected Music

by

Under plaster vaulting, the sound at Gordon Chapel of the Old South Church was live and resonant for Symphony Nova on Friday, though the lighting was somewhat gloomy. Conductor Lawrence Isaacson explained that the 11 young performers at the start of their professional careers were part of an ensemble that is “the only training orchestra in Boston that is not a youth group.” Though these individuals (string quartet, contrabass, four woodwinds, horn and harp) had not yet been seasoned by years of first-chair orchestral playing, one would hardly have known it; the playing was confident, the sound warm and lively, and the ensemble quality well-nigh perfect. “Dawn to Dusk” began at 6:30, with paper maple leaves placed on the seats and small pumpkins adorning the aisles.

Isaacson’s selection of works was inspired. A Nonet by Bohuslav Martinu, in three movements, was rich in sound and texture, showing Martinu’s simultaneous roots in Stravinskyan neoclassical brightness, contrapuntally spare but animated; and Dvorák’s Romantic sound, with a lot of strong root-position harmony and some refreshing dissonant notes added to the upper parts. The rhythmic spirit of Stravinsky of the 1930s animated this work, too, with rapidly-changing meters and incisive accents, but Martinu always assimilated these different styles into an elegant personal idiom, and it was obvious that the players enjoyed it.

Walter Piston’s Divertimento for nine instruments in three movements, commissioned by  International Society for Contemporary Music  in 1946, was the grittiest offering of the evening. Where Martinu’s harmony is usually triadically organized, with strong basses, Piston’s harmony depends a good deal on superposed fourths, a busy contrapuntal texture that throws in an assortment of chromatic tones, and an evanescent sense of where the bass line is. And yet it’s all very melodic despite the complexity, especially in the expressive, moody slow movement. As far as I can remember, this is the first piece by my beloved teacher that I have reviewed for this Journal. I first saw Piston in person at the Boston Arts Festival in 1957, when he conducted this very same piece; I still remember him explaining to the audience the difference between a divertimento, a divertissement, and a diverticulum. Two years later I was studying with him during his last year of teaching, and I think he conducted the Divertimento once more at his farewell concert in Sanders Theatre in 1960.

Beyond the Symphonie espagnole, whoever hears Édouard Lalo any more? And even that fine violin concerto is neglected today. Yet he was one of the great 19th-century Frenchmen inspired by Wagner in the years between the death of Berlioz (1869) and Debussy’s first rise to fame (1894). (In fact, it was at the premiere in 1882 of Lalo’s brilliant orientalist ballet score, Namouna, that the 19-year-old Debussy was ejected from the hall for cheering too enthusiastically.) The two pieces called “Aubades” that we heard were Lalo’s arrangements of extracts from his unperformed opera Fiesque of 1866 (the opera itself was finally given a staged premiere eight years ago and has been recorded). This was certainly the most ingratiating music of the evening—lovely melody, graceful texture, fine solo writing (I especially liked the melody with viola and horn in unison, a perfectly blended sound)—and it got a long ovation, further testimony to the need to bring back more of Lalo’s music.

"Kate Foss is Nova"

“Kate Foss is Nova”

The “Dawn to Dusk” theme concluded with a five-movement Serenade for eleven instruments by Bernhard Sekles (1872-1934), the evening’s most forgotten composer. The dictionaries note him as a teacher of Paul Hindemith, but Sekles’s abandonment doubtless has much to do with his suppression by the Nazis. By the evidence of this 1907 work, Sekles is a post-Brahmsian with a style that shows a masterful though not very original technique. His music reminded me of Ludwig Thuille, who was Sekles’s earlier contemporary, or even the Bostonian George W. Chadwick, who came later. The Serenade is a sunny, amiable, thoroughly tonal work in E-flat major, elegantly scored, always melodically interesting. There were some unconventional formal usages, too—the first movement was a theme with variations (I can name only one other work of symphonic scope with an initial movement in variation form, and that is Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding Symphony of 1877, also in five movements and in the same key), and the third movement was called “Divertimento in fugal form.” It rather stretched credulity to consider that this serenade was exactly contemporary with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony for 15 instruments, a very different and much more progressive work—yet both works emerge from a Brahmsian spirit.

The performances impressed and even delighted throughout, but I was especially grateful to hear once more four strong and gratifying works that have all been concealed for too long. Congratulations to Symphony Nova, and to its director, Lawrence Isaacson.

Kate Foss’s YouTube clip is here.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for your review, Mr. DeVoto. My son’s cello teacher, Michael Bonner from Cambridge, MA, taught him a Lalo composition a few years ago that was wonderful. I am not a musician myself but an avid listener of music. Your article has already lead me to Kate Foss’ you tube page and I will have some fun exploring some of the other music and artists you mention.

    Comment by michael rater — October 19, 2014 at 6:46 am

  2. That probably would have been Lalo’s Cello Concerto; it’s one of the better cello concertos in the 19th-century repertory. It wouldn’t have been relevant to my review, but I wanted to mention Lalo’s other and later opera, Le Roi d’Ys, a strong dramatic work, clearly Wagnerian in conception but with a strong Gallic originality. It has a fine overture, with a long, expressive cello solo in the middle section.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — October 19, 2014 at 10:20 am

  3. I have nothing to contribute about Bernhard Sekles, of whose music I know nothing, but think Mark is under two misapprehensions about Thuille and Chadwick. First, while Thuille was indeed older than Sekles, being a contemporary of Mahler, Strauss and Debussy, Chadwick was certainly not younger, being in fact seven years older than Thuille (b. 1854). The second misapprehension is that Thuille and Chadwick were in any sense unoriginal: putting aside his early and very Brahmsian (and very lovely) sextet for piano and wind quintet, Thuille was a very interesting adopter of chromatic harmony, taking a position somewhere between Brahms and Reger; while Chadwick, with not nearly as advanced a harmonic palette in his 19th century compositions, was very much the first American composer to really sound like an American, and who crafted pentatonic tunes that sound nothing like what Debussy or Dvořák made of them. If you wanted to compare Sekles to his American contemporaries, you’d have to look to the generation of Ives, Ruggles, and Carpenter, all very original voices indeed.

    Comment by Vance R. Koven — October 19, 2014 at 5:14 pm

  4. The viola and horn solo you speak of was in fact viola and bassoon, if I am not mistaken. Great review, highly needed for a new group like this in Boston.

    Comment by Anon — October 20, 2014 at 6:40 pm

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