The New England Philharmonic began its search for a successor to Richard Pittman with Adam Kerry Boyles on the podium on Sunday for a nicely varied program in the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University, its favored locale. Boyles spoke briefly and amiably about each offering, beginning with a request for a moment of silence in Stephen Sondheim’s memory in the necessarily half-filled hall. A newly-composed fanfare, Stepping Up by Boston’s own Michael Gandolfi, saluted Pittman on his retirement to emeritus, but its bright Broadway-like sound could have honored Sondheim equally. This joyful two-minute piece, the composer’s note explained, “steps up” from C to D and finally E major. There were short bursts of brass and percussion, but a note of special elegance stood out in the first violins’ melody in artificial string harmonics that sounded like an uncanny group of whistling bystanders. The composer heard the warm cheers.
Bernard Rands’s Dream may have had an oneiric origin, but it is a well-wrought and excitingly-played burst of French impressionism — “a post-Debussyian formal aesthetic I have been developing over many years,” the composer wrote in his note. There were some structural harmonies, such as a minor-major seventh, and bichord (stretch a well-spaced C major triad in the left hand, and in the right hand above it a tight E-flat major triad) that both Debussy and Ravel would have cherished, but these were all linked in a whole-tone web of wind arpeggios, a barcarolle-like swing in paired clarinets, string trills with sustained chords, and sostenuto brass. A main melody that the composer had jotted down years earlier appeared first in a mournful bassoon, and eventually in unison strings, as the dream dissolved in ethereal sound (as Rimbaud once wrote, “Et le rêve fraîchit”).
Jephtha’s Daughter, a concert aria by Amy Beach, may well have been its first orchestral performance ever, or at least in many years. The Jephtha story (Chapter 11 of the Book of Judges) had been anchored musically in Carissimi’s beautiful oratorio (1648), still widely performed today; but Beach’s eight-minute lamentation, is a valuable rediscovery after the score had been lost for nearly a century, and a worthy addition to the orchestral voice repertory. The harmonic idiom is G minor-major but smooth, in a post-Parsifal pre-Delius chromaticism that is more masterly than any of Beach’s New England contemporaries showed in 1903. Sarah Pelletier sang with clear warmth and expression, and I was surprised that she kept her mask on throughout (as did everyone in the orchestra that I could see). Her “lonely cry” reached up to high C.
Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra is such a hoary chestnut, such an easy-listening showpiece, that one can lose sight of its compositional elegance; that’s typical of Saint-Saëns, who is really a French Mendelssohn born 30 years too late (he was proud of the fact that as a boy he once did hear Mendelssohn conduct). We were happy to hear 16-year-old Ella J. Kim do the honors in proud and confident fashion, and with a smile that shone over her mask. Saint-Saëns wrote this dazzler for Sarasate — one more testimonial to how well the French composers served the Spanish master.
Ravel’s second suite from Daphnis et Chloé, which is probably performed 20 times for every complete performance of the 1912 ballet score, rounded out the concert. The New England Philharmonic may be a local community orchestra, but rose to the challenge of this famous (and famously difficult) work, even if this good performance might have benefited from more players to round out the constantly divisi string sound that later became a Hollywood hallmark. The woodwinds played figuration of the “Lever du jour” cleanly; the famous flute solo came to us with resonant warmth; the Danse générale in 5/4 meter closed triumphantly. That old grouch Henry Pleasants referred to this dance as the last word in orgiastic orchestral writing, to which I say, that’s fine. During the orchestra’s warmup I kept hearing the E-flat clarinetist practicing his crazy chromatic solo; I have heard this same lick in the warmup of every other performance I have heard.
Adam Kerry Boyles directed with friendly authority and a clear understanding. His beat was clear, and he maintained excellent control. I have remarked elsewhere about conductors’ manneristic teacup fingers; his was often visible, but I think he did also suppress it some of the time. And I also liked his commentary, both at the concert and in the program booklet. We should hear more of him.