The New England Philharmonic opened its 45th season on Saturday at All Saints Parish, Brookline under the direction of Composer-in-Residence Eric Nathan in his Boston conducting debut. He led a vibrant, sophisticated, and subtle concert that fittingly celebrated the return of the orchestra to live performance after the Covid. This occasion also marked the beginning of a search to replace longtime Music Director, Richard Pittman, who for 23 years, had nurtured the NEP into an orchestra that can hold its place with any in town. In a marriage made in heaven, NEP and Pittman have consistently championed living composers. He should take ample pride that this ensemble is the better for his quarter century of leadership.
The orchestra commissioned five fanfares to celebrate Pittman; the first of these came from a longtime friend of the orchestra Bernard Hoffer. He gave a few remarks about the genesis of the themes in Fanfare for Dick (2021). It proved appropriately celebratory, alternating satisfying sweeps of sound with dialogues between single winds and temple blocks, which had a prominent part.
In his own the space of a door (2016), Nathan demonstrated a clear, strong, beat as a conductor, often just getting out of the way of the orchestra rather than bearing down on them to get what he wanted. At one point in a moment of enthusiasm, his baton went flying, but it did not faze him or the orchestra. It featured moments of suspended animation, long held string chords, forte/piano chords, glissandos with harmonic bend, and gorgeous soundscapes that implied looking through a door into alternate worlds. At one point various other instruments accompanied a single clarinet note. Overall, the delicate and beautiful work would reward repeated listening.
Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers (2017) took its inspiration from Lemn Sissay’s powerful, namesake poem about the 1888 strike for better working conditions by the women of the Bow Bryant and May match factory in East London; it succeeds in capturing their anger, power, and agitation. Nathan’s conducting matched the music―square and choppy―while providing a strong contrast what preceded it. He showed both to advantage. Kendall’s string parts for her rhythmically bouncy and challenging Spark Catchers challenged with some wickedly difficult moments, but the NEP players dispatched them with aplomb.
Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919), ending in a triumphant rise from the ashes, seemed an appropriate recognition of how concert life, which had been “dead” for nearly 18 months, returned to joy and glory. The work also subtly hints of the theme of fire and redemption of the Matchmaker’s strike. Far more deeply, this writer can intuit the social upheaval of the racial protests of the past summer, the reexamination of the original sin of slavery and racism in this country, the potential for rebirth within this music.
The brisk traversal may have challenged the orchestra in a few small places in the second movement, but through it all we heard gleaming horn solos, an outstanding bassoon solo, and an interesting, seamless transition from the third to the fourth movement.
Nathan may have tossed away his baton, but he has by not means thrown away his shot at becoming the next Music Director of the New England Philharmonic. His thoughtful programming, his clear, competent, and musical conducting, and his joy and commitment to the music of living composers make him an outstanding candidate for the job. It’s going to be an interesting season!
NB: The author was under the impression that all conductors for this season were candidates for the open position of Music Director, but Mr. Nathan was not.
Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.