Adam Boyles, the Music Director of the Brookline Symphony Orchestra, offered a somewhat tortured explanation for his choice of repertoire for the orchestra’s holiday-season program on Saturday, but the first-rate and varied selections needed none. What’s more, this other BSO performed with solidity and finesse that belied its community-ensemble status.
The opening work would seem to have something to do with the season, that being the second movement, “Noël” (sometimes written without the dieresis) from George Whitefield Chadwick’s Symphonic Sketches. The entire four-movement work, written between 1895 and 1904, constitutes a sort of Fourth Symphony manqué, in that the ever-popular first movement, “Jubilee,” is in the shortened sonata form, lacking a development. Moreover, because like the Ives Holidays each movement has its own title (with an appurtenant bit of verse), it is more susceptible than conventional symphonies to treating each movement as a separate piece. Nevertheless, a complete hearing would reveal Chadwick at his peak as not only a masterful craftsman but an artist of real depth. It would also disclose the telling thematic connections between the movements, which lend both unity and trajectory to the whole.
The connection between “Noël” and Christmas is, as it happens, only indirect. It is named for the composer’s second son, who was born at Christmastime and probably therefore named in light of that seasonal connection. The music is archetypal Chadwick: ingratiating, lyrical, pregnant and poignant with the hope that all parents invest in their children (in the event, it seems that Noel Chadwick didn’t quite turn out to satisfy all those hopes, but that is a story for another type of work). Over a serene chordal plane in the strings, an English Horn (kudos to Carol Louik for supple tone and shapely phrasing) intones a beautiful pentatonic tune in the American folk style Chadwick had nailed. It gradually swells in intensity, leading to a B section with a tune moving in the opposite direction but which is melodically related to the principal one. The return to the A section is powerfully stated, with rich and somewhat more passionate harmonies. Boyles displayed great sensitivity in phrasing and dynamics, and the massed strings put forth a lovely, resonant, amber glow.
The orchestra’s recent internal concerto competition winner, Peter Kronheimer performed the Strauss Horn Concerto No. 2 in E-flat Major. A student of the late legendary Welsh horn pedagogue Ifor James, Kronheimer, is the orchestra’s principal hornist and holds down a day job as chair of the mathematics department at Harvard. He returned to playing the horn after a long hiatus, which is also what Richard Strauss did with regard to writing for the horn. His second concerto was written in 1942, nearly 60 years after the first, in the same key. The first was written for his father, Franz, one of Germany’s leading hornists, and the second, in a complex way, also draws on the older traditions of German music, going even farther back to Mozart. Much has been written about Strauss’s late works of abstract music, whether they represent escapism, contrition, nostalgia, or all the above. Certainly the concerto, created while the war was still raging, looks backward—perhaps because Strauss couldn’t bear to look forward—to the Mozartean joy of making something beautiful.
It opens with a figure circumnavigating the E-flat triad, more circuitously than the first concerto did but plainly cut from the same cloth. The several motifs that pop up in the first movement develop with only a nod to conventional sonata form. Kronheimer’s fluid legato resonated so perfectly in the acoustic of All Saints Parish church that it would seem the space was designed with this timbre in mind. The orchestral accompaniment, for long stretches with strings alone, sounded deferential while the horn was playing and assertive when it wasn’t. A finely wrought coda links the first movement to the second, tender and glowing. In the sprightly rondo finale Strauss allowed himself to speak in the voice to which audiences had become accustomed in the intervening decades, yet in a compact form that eloquently responded to Stravinsky’s criticism that Strauss crammed all the notes he possibly could onto the page. Again, Kronheimer was both virtuosic and communicative, though our only reservation was that staccato and sforzando notes could have been more emphatic. It’s a hard piece to play, but the soloist and orchestra captured it with deceptive ease.
The closer, Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo, translates as something like “bewitched love.” The familiar ballet score one mostly hears arrived as the third of four Falla versions: the original premiered a century ago as something like a narrated and choreographed (for flamenco dancer) Singspiel (specifically, a gitanería or gypsy piece) for cantaora, actors and chamber orchestra; he then cut and rescored it for larger ensemble, then canned the narrator and made a proper ballet of it, retaining the singer (1924), before finally producing a suite for piano solo. The scenario involves a woman married to a feckless and faithless man; he is killed in a duel but his specter haunts her every attempt to have another relationship. She tries various means to exorcize the spirit and finally succeeds by distracting him with another woman while the widow breaks the spell by kissing her beloved. The music, whose most famous segment is “The Ritual Fire Dance,” is colorfully spooky, mournful, fiery and passionate, with Falla exhibiting his flashiest orchestration within a surprisingly compact line of discourse. The featured soloist for this performance was the wonderful Thea Lobo, whose dusky tone and sensual throbbing vibrato gave persuasive voice to the four sung numbers in Andalusian dialect (though she unfortunately was occasionally covered by the orchestra). Falla’s scoring gave ample scope for each orchestral choir to shine, which they did: the crisp brass and wind opening, the eerie strings of the “Magic Circle,” and everyone in the “Ritual Fire Dance.” The swaying rhythms of the “Pantomime” section were notably effective. Not exactly Christmassy, but who cares?