Founded by enterprising young conductor Julian Gau last May, the 25-strong, all-volunteer Horizon Ensemble offered the fourth concert of its summer season on Sunday, Aug. 28th at Boston’s Church of the Covenant. Sometime this autumn the ensemble will once again feature music by friends alongside music from history.
Very much attracted to the planned major work, I shared a typical concert-goer’s apprehension; since I didn’t know the first two names on the program. What would we be in for? The first discover, Ben Nacar’s Dodecatet, proved enchanting. As the title suggests, Nacar wrote it for for 12 instruments. The Allegretto first movement featured rapturous play of nature in a living forest. It began in media res with lithe birdcalls in sprightly exchanges and overlaps. Did the same bird sing from a different location? Did a different bird imitate its call? Another spinning a winsome counterpoint transpired, and fragmentary chirps sounded in a layered texture. The orchestra sat in front of us but the forest surrounded us in a lushly complex texture.
Lento – Presto – Tempo I started with an expansive melodic gesture and continued in refreshing lyricism. While the first movement demanded precision (and got it from the excellent ensemble) herein came the direct expression of an instrumental voice as in song. The contrasting Presto revealed the power of nature or some mysterious dark force ― be it dark clouds assembling in treetops, or some yawning vista opening up dramatically. But this uneasiness passed as we returned to the embrace of the lyricism.
The final movement fugued with a jangling, widely spread theme like a waterfall cascade, prompting wonder at how such a craggy motive could serve as a fugue subject. Yet the intrepid 12 clambered adroitly along to its exhilarating conclusion. Ben Nacar says he completed this work, “essentially a chamber symphony,” in 2015. I wonder if it is too late to give it a more evocative title? “Summertime Scenes” – the title of the concert as a whole – would be fitting.
The full chamber orchestra assembled for the premiere of the afternoon, Zach Hick’s Ready or Not (2022). Definitely modernistic in vocabulary, its shifting panels of sound produced ambiguity and restlessness in overlapping timbres in an abstract but completely engaging idiom. The energy built and kept me in, but at the end, I was still wondering where it was going. I’d love to hear it again.
It’s disappointing that Louise Farrenc has been slow to catch on with larger ensembles (for instance, the BSO). Conductors have tended to assume that they know all the important music of the past, and assume that older scores they don’t know “can’t be any good.” Let’s hope that a younger generation of conductors can wonder about and explore works that have fallen through the biased cracks of canon formation. Factors other than quality ― for instance, sexism or racism might — just might! have led to unwarranted neglect.
Some of Farrenc’s chamber works could be found on disc as early as the 1970s, and the first recording of the Symphonies (1 and 3) appeared in 1998 (back in the days when the gentlemen at Briggs & Briggs Music Store in Harvard Square would let me know that a new recording of music by a women composer had arrived!)
Gau related that Farrenc received equal pay at the Paris Conservatory because, following the success of her Symphonies in the 1840s, and then her sensational Nonet, she demanded fair treatment. A short, animated video from the 92nd Street Y [HERE] tells the story in under a minute. While Farrenc was the only woman to teach at the Paris Conservatoire in the 19th century, I wonder if she knew about the brilliant composer/pianist Hélène de Montgeroult who taught there briefly at the end of the 18th?
Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 in G Minor (1847) begins with a pensive oboe solo before hurtling into a dramatic Allegro Assai. Working within the conventions of classical form, Farrenc created a stately yet evocative edifice. The musicianship in the Horizon Ensemble was extremely high, though marred by occasional lapses from the crispness and precision that the classical style demands. While many concerts take place there, the Church of the Covenant does not offer the ideal acoustic; the many interjections by outside traffic noise (sometimes chord tones) posed another impediment through the entire concert. A first violin deficit proved another real issue, but knowing the Farrenc well, I could better appreciate background parts (such as horn lines) as more melodic elements. Concertmaster, Eun Joo Ahn sounded poised and compelling.
The philosophical reflection of (mvt. II) the Adagio Cantabile gave the work a core of transcendent beauty. Gau felt the tempo with the perfect balance of ease and reflection. The Scherzo: Vivace delivered drive and energy ― more so than that of the BSO at Tanglewood, which seems somewhat lethargic (it can be heard HERE for a few weeks). The final Allegro pulsed with conviction and drama, building to an intense fugue and an emphatic conclusion.
Difficulty in accessing adequate parts for Farrenc’s oeuvre has impeded its return to life; last summer Gau created his own edition of her Nonet (op. 38), and led the ensemble in it [HERE]; Sunday we heard the east coast premiere of a new edition of Symphony No. 3, published by Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy (I serve as its President); edited by Ronald Krentzman. It will be available soon through our website.
N.B.: The Handel and Haydn Society played Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 in Symphony Hall last November. Our review is HERE.
Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc. Her website is here.