New England Philharmonic’s 40th-anniversary season came to a close on Saturday at the Tsai with an emblematic program, which is to say fascinating, engaging and occasionally challenging. It included three premieres of extremely different effect; a short mind-bending work a mere 20 years old; and two “classics” from the 1930s, almost polar opposites in approach.
The opener, Peter Child’s Flourish! Fanfare for Orchestra, at perhaps 2 minutes long, placed an off-center rhythm against slow notes that hovered between ground bass and melody: almost no material at all lasting for just long enough to exhaust its potential. It was minimal minimalism: a small gesture, not at all over-extended. The piece made up in sheer craftsmanship for its brevity (and for the exclamation point in the title).
Of the world premiere of David Rakowski’s second Violin Concerto, written for NE Phil concertmaster Danielle Maddon, I am tempted to use the work “craftsmanship” for his work as well, though it left less of an impression. The composer spoke self-deprecatingly about how to listen a bit differently. Maybe a second listen would make a deeper impression? Its three movements, fast-slow-fast are mildly quirky: the first has all the strings, including the soloist, playing pizzicato throughout (well, the soloist gets a long woozy gliss at the end), a pleasant change of pace. The last, in compound meter, is so laid-back one might altogether overlook it. Rakowski said the concerto had a second movement “because concertos have second movements”, and that was exactly the impression that movement left. It was quite lovely and ephemeral. Maddon’s inventive and playful, take was conversational rather than showy.
The final premiere (Boston, not world) was the winner of the NE Phil’s 2017 Call for Scores. Oblivion by a young Uzbek composer, Liliya Ugay (b. 1990) comprises a large collection of inventive ideas, laid out in a straight line with a heavy coating of cinematic gloss at the end. Some moments of real interest came especially in some of the interlocking rhythms, and the composer has an ear for orchestral affect. Ugay has a quite moving and unhappy story, being essentially exiled from her home country, and her remarks cited that as a program for the work. Knowing that, it feels like the program perhaps overpowers the work, and encourages a narrative structure and extremes of expression that the material itself doesn’t justify.
Of the remaining works, Sebastian Currier’s Microsymph (1997) gave the purest pleasure. Its conceit is simple: he compresses an entire five-movement symphony into 10 minutes: and the middle slow movement uses up four of them! The work transcends its gimmick: the writing is remarkably transparent, so that every little manipulation of musical material can be heard, but without the ear tiring. The second movement, “minute waltz”, lasts exactly that minute, and fills the time admirably. The final movement, “kaleidoscope”, reprises much of the music we’ve already heard: perhaps a touch incoherent, it does impress one with the sheer amount of memorable fragments he has stuffed into this package. In a world of miniature music, if Child’s fanfare is a Mozart overture, Currier is Mahler.
The most engaging, interesting and well-executed item was Copland’s Orchestral Variations, a 1957 orchestration of his 1930 Piano Variations. He wrote it while still a formidable and imposing presence, rather than the homespun monument he was to become. Built on an uncompromsing four-note cell, it is tightly argued, intellectually challenging and densely passionate. The orchestration sacrifices some of the violence of the piano version, but in its place each variation gains depth of personality. In Pittman’s hands the progress from variation to variation followed inexorably, leaving one excited and exercised. By 1957 Copland had written all of his best-known pieces, and it was fascinating to hear familiar elements—certain voicings, instrumental combinations—clothing this much more aggressive material.
Orchestration was the strong point of Zoltàn Kodàly’s 1939 Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, The Peacock, it had little more to offer. Constructed on a curiously unengaging melody, the work read like a catalog of orchestration, but a clinical one, with little to hold the ear besides technique.
Pittman achieves excellent results from this talented group. En masse, its sound can be quite gorgeous: the Ugay and Kodàly both benefited from excellent large ensemble playing. However, in exposed passages, rough edges appear. Loose execution in the Rakowski’s opening pizzicatos left me wondering if a more exacting execution might have given his concerto more life. But the Copland, though less gorgeous on the surface, inspired excellent playing perhaps due to its very difficulty, especially in the winds and brass. If one needed a reason to continue to be grateful for the NE Phil’s mission, it would be for its undertaking a major work by an American master that has been presented only once by the BSO since 1948. Anyone hoping that orchestral music will persist should hope with me that the NE Phil has many more anniversaries to come.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.