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Shall We Dance with the New England Philharmonic?


György Ligeti (file photo)
György Ligeti (file photo)

Organized around the rubric of “Shall We Dance?,” the New England Philharmonic under Richard Pittman gave a long program Friday at the Tsai Center at Boston University with two important premieres; it was long, yet every bit as exciting as it promised.

The program opened with a short piece by György Ligeti, Ramifications for twelve solo strings, in two groups tuned a quarter-tone apart. The “branching” implied by the title is wrought in polymetric layers that crawl gradually into the upper registers, mostly pianissimo but with occasional loud outbursts. I admired the performance more than the work, which seemed too much like a failed experiment. The players, not used to such differentiations, spent a long time tuning up beforehand. Ligeti’s Atmosphères, for full orchestra, was recorded by Leonard Bernstein half a century ago, and this Ramifications seemed like a thumbnail snapshot of the larger work.

Bernard Hoffer, New York-based composer, arranger, and jazz accompanist who just celebrated his eightieth birthday, was on hand to talk about his Ligeti Split, honoring the late Hungarian composer whom he especially admires. “The title came before the music,” the composer wrote in his notes. “It starts with large pianissimo chords that intertwine, much in the nature of what Ligeti does in his Atmosphères, and then disintegrates, or better, morphs into jazz.” The description is perfect, mirroring the split between two radically different kinds of music — the foggy, blurred, layered winds and strings on the one hand, and the lively jazz combo on the other. The small combo, animated by piano, hi-hat and vibes, alternated with loud crunchy tutti harmony that showed what a full orchestra can do when fighting with a jazz big band; and yet there were contrasting episodes of quiet textures that gave an elegant formal balance to the whole.

It was a delight to hear Stravinsky’s Capriccio performed with such admirable precision and incisiveness, with expert partnership between the orchestra and the soloist, Randall Hodgkinson. This is fully-fledged neoclassical Stravinsky, Bach’s 18th century reborn in the 20th. One felt that this work was an abbreviated concerto whose three movements were effortlessly joined one to another. Composed in 1929 at Echarvines in the French Alps (I spent a month there in 1990, remembering this very work), the Capriccio is a spunky and no less brittle younger brother to the larger and harder-edged Concerto for Piano and Winds of 1924. A concertino of four solo strings (vn, vla, vc, cb) hovered behind the piano but were fully audible and warmly expressive; just as rich in sound were the triple winds, especially the oboes at the beginning of the second movement, which reminded me of Bach’s “Golgotha” recitative. The Capriccio has a welter of repeated notes, echoing Stravinsky’s beloved cimbalom, and these too adumbrate the Concerto for Two Pianos Soli, which came a few years later. Hodgkinson was totally involved in the crispness of sound that dominates the piano texture, and it was obvious that he enjoyed every minute. There’s a lot of boom-chicka, too, including the alternating A-C bass notes, and if Stravinsky relied a little too much on that in Mavra, in the Capriccio it seems entirely appropriate, especially in the third movement.

After the intermission David Rakowski spoke briefly about his new Symphony No. 5, which began as a series of Dance Episodes. The composer’s jocular manner, apparent in his detailed program notes, provided some cover for what is obviously a serious and beautiful work. The first movement, Zephyrs, had been already performed by the orchestra last year; it is organized around a pedal-point trill on E and F that moves around the orchestra but is surrounded by Ravel-like harmony of fine sensibility and upper-register transparency. The second movement, Masks (the only other time I ever heard this title used, instead of Masques, was in a Suite by Beryl Rubinstein), is more stark and brass-oriented, organized around a G center; its tricky rhythms provided neat punctuation, and didn’t faze the players at all. Of the third movement, Triste, the composer wrote,”I was thinking of a slow, sad dance of a solo, then duo, then trio, and then quartet” for strings, and the accumulation of soli, with added winds one by one, made for a clear texture in which the expressive melodic lines were never submerged even when the full orchestra joined in. The finale, called Motive Perpetuo, gave prominence to the orchestra’s pianist, Patrick Yacono, hidden at the back of the stage but in full partnership with the whole. This was the liveliest part of the entire symphony, with a noticeable jazzy beat and repeated middle-register figures — probably the most danceable part of the work, and it reminded me of a different Masque, the one in Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety Symphony. All in all, David Rakowski’s new Symphony, entirely independently of any dance spirit, is an important work, impeccably orchestrated and wonderful to hear.

Maurice Ravel (file photo)
Maurice Ravel (file photo)

If the  long concert tired the players by the time they got to Ravel’s La valse, only a few slight problems of coordination showed it in this powerful and edgy performance. There was particularly good sound in the flutes and horns, who face significant dangers in the headlong rush to catastrophe. If at times the trumpets seemed a little too loud, at other times their full strength was absolutely needed. I’ve written elsewhere about some of the problems of distribution and balance that Ravel faced in orchestrating La valse and that he may not have completely solved. But Richard Pittman was able to mobilize one of the clearest performances I’ve yet heard anywhere. Had the orchestra been a bigger one, there might have been more string sound, but such an absence wasn’t a noticeable deficiency.

This was one of the most interesting orchestral concerts I can remember in recent years. Richard Pittman’s leadership and vision reflect the sureness and courage of this fine semiprofessional group that sustains our own composers and does credit to music everywhere in New England.

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.

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