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Worth the NH Trip: Symphonies from the 1890s


Amy Marcy Cheney Beach

After a short road trip to Concord NH, I walked around the lovely downtown Friday night and, seeing some black-clad musicians, said, “I’ll follow you to the concert; you must know where you’re going.” Came the reply, “No, we don’t; we’re from Boston”. And so it was that musicians and audience members alike from eastern Massachusetts came to hear Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony. It definitely is worth the trip to experience one of the first great American symphonies; the third performance by SymphonyNH takes place Tuesday night in Durham. (No opportunity to hear it in our own state.) You can even take Amtrak, although you can’t get back that night.

I attended the performance at the Concord City Auditorium, a lovely 1904 theater that has been beautifully restored. However, there is not a lot of resonance to blend and warm the tones. Some carpeting and a brick wall at the back of the stage contribute to brittleness of timbre. The stage is small and square, and some of the sound from the back seemed muffled (at one point I wondered if the trumpets were offstage, since I couldn’t see them sitting at the orchestra level). An acoustic shell might help keep the sound from going up into the rigging. After intermission I moved up to the balcony and thought the sound (as well as the sightlines) much improved.

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture began the program. The articulated parlando in the violins in the first theme makes it tricky as an opener (there was a little raggedness), and the typical juxtaposition of themes fails to create a memorable work, although the hushed ending is striking. I guess the point was to have a short Beethoven piece in a year that SymphonyNH has designated as Beethoven-themed, but any number of other pieces (Bernstein’s Candide Overture comes to mind, since it’s a Bernstein anniversary, or either of Louise Farrenc’s Overtures, for instance) would have been more engaging.

I usually appreciate conductors speaking from the podium, but some of the Jonathan McPhee’s remarks missed the mark. However, he was right about the fervor of interest in classical music in Beach and Dvořák’s day, and the civic pride it evoked, as being comparable with something like present-day Sox vs Yankees. As critic Philip Hale wrote after the premiere of Beach’s symphony, in 1896, Beach “has brought honor to herself and the city which is her dwelling place.”

When the Gaelic Symphony was revived, in the early 1990s, it was proposed that it was Beach’s response to Dvořák’s 1893 call for a national American music founded on “negro melodies.” Indeed, she was quoted in an article where Boston musicians responded to Dvořák’s statement. But musicologist Sarah Gerk has recently pointed out that Beach argued for a diverse and inclusive view of American music, seeing it as rich in transnational dimensions, part of a culture engaged with the larger world. Beach had a cosmopolitan and empathetic interest in Irishness, both in general and in the migrants who were downtrodden in her adopted Boston. What she wrote about the final movement seems applicable to the work as a whole: it “tries to express the rough, primitive character of the Celtic people, their sturdy daily life, their passions and battles, and the elemental nature of the processes of thought and its resulting action”.

With its restless and agitated opening in the strings and moody trumpet query in the first theme, Beach’s symphony gets to an exciting start. She draws the first two themes from her own song “Dark Is the Night” and thus the music began as an illustration of lyrics which begin “The sea is full of wand’ring foam.” Gerk suggests that the turbulent ocean illustrates the perilous journey of Irish immigrants.

The closing theme introduces the first of four traditional Irish melodies employed, “Conchobhar ua Raghallaigh Cluann” (“Connor O’Reilly of Clounish”), a lively and ornate jig — or it’s supposed to be. McPhee took the poco ritardando going into the theme as a molto rit. and then ignored the a tempo, with the result that the jig seemed more like a lugubrious ballad. The theme is stated first in the oboe, and in the recapitulation it is extended in the violins, and here I wondered if the strangely slow tempo was chosen because of ensemble issues. I’ve heard the Gaelic played by amateur orchestras on recent occasions with no such problems, but of course they have a lot more rehearsal time.

The second movement, Alla siciliana, explores the lilting Irish folk song “Goirtin Ornadh” (“Little Field of Barley”). Gerk also makes a convincing case that the middle movement of Saint-Saëns’s Violin Concerto No. 3 served as another source of influence. Beach praised the “sweetness” of that movement’s melody when she heard it in 1890. After a short introduction, the oboe is given the theme, as if to suggest a bagpipe. In the middle section the theme is transformed into a sparkling and effervescent scherzo. While McPhee is a clear conductor, in the gentler, more atmospheric passages he seemed a little stiff, even mechanical. I wondered if he might convey warmth with more flexibility and nuance if he put down his stick. At one point in the energetic scherzo section, full of busy string figurations, a delicate and slow version of the theme (as stated in the first section) comes wafting over it in the horn, like a nostalgic wisp of smoke. While played accurately, I had more a sense of everyone counting like mad rather than a magical encounter of two contrasting moments.

Next was the Lento con expressione. Following the introduction of the mournful lullaby, “Baisden Fine” (“The Lively Child,” also known as “Cushlamachree”), in the bass clarinet, and a rhapsodic solo by the concertmaster (played with great warmth by Elliot Markow), the melodic is stated in full by an evocative solo cello (Harel Gietheim). The brighter, major-key second section tune is “Cia an Bealach a Deachaidh Si” (“Which way did she go?”). The full brass gave a richness to this noble passage.

The brilliant finale begins with the coda that ended the first movement. Indeed, all the thematic material is developed from the first two themes of the first movement (which are drawn from Beach’s song). There is a very tricky syncopated accompaniment figure that needs to be really tight in order to propel itself forward. For a standard-repertory piece it would be in those orchestra excerpts books that musicians drill themselves on, and with more familiarity it would be more energized. The transitions of tempo were a little rigid and abrupt; the slowing into the final section should have a huge sense of expansion into final majestic tempo. The performance was a good reading, but did not realize the full grandeur of the work.

It’s not ideal to have, on one concert, two big symphonies written only a few years apart, and both so steeped in the Central European traditions of orchestral writing: development and transformation of themes across multiple movements, traditional forms like sonata and scherzo, etc. It’s like a meal of two heavy meat dishes with elaborate sauces. But still it can be done, and was certainly enjoyable (it just called for a juice fast the next day). About Dvořák’s From the New World, McPhee’s podium remarks were also rather off-the-cuff. Of course it’s true that Dvořák drew inspiration from the music of African-Americans. But he named Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha as well. Both views are true and reveal more depth of meaning in the work.

Conducting from memory, McPhee was in his element here, making the many transitions of mood and tempo gripping. Dvořák’s harmonies are striking and novel in the famed Largo. The warmth of the lyricism in the central section (over walking bass) struck me as a blues-infused inspiration. At the close of the last movement, Allegro con fuoco, layering those harmonies onto the conclusion was one of many brilliant strokes. But the ending is a little unsettling — Dvořák has a way of adding on a few too many bombastic ending sections — and then he ended ambivalently, with the fadeout in the winds.

If Beach had the recognition she deserves, the Gaelic Symphony would be a grand and satisfying closer. But she is still far from one of the better-known classical composers. McPhee asked audience members who knew some of Beach’s music to raise their hands; while more than a smattering, it was a pretty small number to give an affirmative signal. And this just a bit down the road from Henniker NH, Beach’s birthplace. Still, we can imagine that Beach is better-known in Boston, where she lived for so long and wrote her Symphony, bringing “honor to herself and the city”.

Despite my quibbles with the performance, I recommend the trip to Durham on Tuesday. Beach’s Symphony deserves to be heard. Details here.

Go early and take in the exhibit in the university museum.

And on Nov. 10, we will have the chance to hear another of Beach’s monumental works, her Mass.

Liane Curtis is president of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, which supported preparation of a new edition of Beach’s Symphony; this week’s performances are the first in New England to use it.

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