IN: Reviews

Concord Honors Pittman


Over his long career in Boston, conductor Richard Pittman presided not only over Boston Musica Viva, with its concerts of his chosen new music played by professional musicians, but also over the Concord Orchestra, composed mostly of volunteers. His role with this latter orchestra proves that classical music can be well served by small local orchestras, furthering interest in and promotion of this supposedly arcane genre.

Dick Pittman suffered a major stroke three years ago, so Boston Musica Viva no longer exists, but the Concord Orchestra survives, greatly improved over the more than 50 years that he led it. Last Sunday afternoon’s concert with conductor Eric Culver in his farewell performance with the orchestra, honored Pittman. The four works, two by his long-time friend Bernard Hoffer, along with Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Charles Ives’s Symphony no. 2, referred to Pittman in various ways.

The concert at 51 Walden began with Bernard Hoffer’s short but spirited Fanfare for Dick from 2009. The enthusiasm of players and audience made for a heart-warming start to the evening.

An American in Paris (1928) commemorated Dick’s well-known love of the city. The strings of the Concord Orchestra amply proved their musical competence, as did the flutes. The horns and timpani, however, occasionally sounded too loud, seeming to miss Culver’s two very clear directions for diminuendos.

Jeffrey Korn in Hoffer’s Kurt Weill Songbook. (Iman Sakkaf photo)

Ives composed his second symphony in 1900-1902, more than 20 years before the better-known music of Aaron Copland used American folk idioms. Some musicologists consider the Ives the first “American” symphony, given that Dvořák merely referenced the American tunes in his “New World,” Symphony (1893) rather than employing them directly. The Ives symphony, with its discernible quotations from blues, gospel, and folk music, provides a number of good solos for the trombone, which Nicole Brellenthin handled very well. Culver noted after the concert that Ives, “has an ear for Bruckner-style chorale writing: a very affectionate parody, set against the ‘Pig Town Fling’ and ‘Turkey in the Straw’.” He also noted that the trombone section did the subtle Bruckner reference very nicely.

The single published edition of Ives’s Symphony No. 2 gives no indication for bowing. From the archives of the New York Philharmonic, which contain many of the pieces performed by the orchestra over the years and include markings for the concertmaster (and principals), the Concord players could not only mark their scores appropriately, but it helped with their interpretation. Again, no complaints about the competent playing. The flutes performed a wonderful duet in the last section, with its prime motif “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” The basses, however, could have achieved greater richness of tone through more vibrato.

Pittman and Bernard Hoffer have been friends since Dick played the trombone in the U.S. Army and Hoffer worked as the arranger. Their collaboration for the Kurt Weill Songbook started several years ago, but Covid prevented the earlier planned premiere. Unfortunately, Hoffer had to miss both the rehearsals and the concert. The eight texts, ranging from humorous to poignant, come from Ira Gershwin (My Ship, The Saga of Jenny, Tchaikovsky) Maxwell Anderson (The Little Gray House, Lost in the Stars), Ogden Nash (Speak Low), and Langston Hughes (The Lonely House). The orchestra did a great job of conveying Weill’s changing emotions. Baritone Jeffrey Korn projected stellar empathy with the texts and score through crystal-clear enunciation and mellifluous tone. The amusing patter-song “Tchaikovsky,” a laundry list of Russian composers, earned two encores. Over instrumental interludes, Korn spoke of what each song evoked about the composer, Dick, and the power of music.

Dick Pittman deserved every bit of this tribute.

Bettina A. Norton, emerita editor of the Intelligencer, is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”


8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. As an “amateur” violinist who played in the Orchestra for some 60 years I was pleased to read the fine tribute to Dick Pittman and the Concord Orchestra concert. Under Dick the quality of the playing and programming improved alot over the years. When we went on tour of Austria, Chechoslovakia and Hungary in 1988 we were regarded as a professional group and the high standards remain now even after the challenge of Covid. Audiences may be small but they consist of folk hungry for live music. Viva “amateur” orchestras.

    Comment by Barbara Marden — February 3, 2023 at 9:45 am

  2. Nice piece of writing here, Toni, and a well-earned recognition of Mr. Pittman’s career. “His role with this latter orchestra (Concord) proves that classical music can be well served by small local orchestras, furthering interest in and promotion of this supposedly arcane genre.” Indeed.

    Comment by Bill Blake — February 3, 2023 at 10:26 am

  3. The published score (Peer/Southern) of Ives’s Second Symphony is very scanty about bowing markings in many places. I’m sure this was partly because of Ives’s lack of experience in indicating simple slurs for legato bowing, and partly because it was a task he postponed until he had the time to do it carefully. But he did get all the notes in, including the memorable “Bringing in the Sheaves”. BTW how did the audience react to the stunning final chord of the symphony? It’s an eleven-note sonority, coming immediately after “Reveille” — indicating, as a friend of mine suggested, that the final movement was entirely in a dream, and suddenly he woke up!

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — February 3, 2023 at 10:45 am

  4. Ah, yes, Mark. That incredible burst of dissonance certainly is a shock, the purpose of which eludes me, and others as well, I gather. Is Ives hinting that all that nostalgia is a sham? I thought to add the illustration of that page in the score, but felt it would overpower the other pieces.

    Comment by Toni Norton — February 3, 2023 at 1:18 pm

  5. It was interesting to read the review of the Ives Second performance. I thought i knew the piece very well, but I now I know that one of the tunes in the finale is “Pig Town Fling”. Of course, there are so many references and quotations in the piece: Brahms’s First Symphony; Stephen Foster, America the Beautiful; Beethoven’s Fifth; a college song (Where Oh Where Are the Pea Green Freshmen?), etc. However, I don’t hear anything that sounds like “quotations from blues” that the reviewer mentions.
    I’ll have to listen again.

    Comment by George Hungerford — February 3, 2023 at 3:51 pm

  6. You are right! I started by making a laundry list of possibilities, genres and song titles (took a while, while singing doo-da, doo-da, to remember the title “Campdown Races”…) thinking “gospel” vs. hymns, etc., and should have cut “blues.” I didn’t get the Bruckner; it was courtesy of Culver.
    Let’s keep listening…

    Comment by Bettina Norton — February 4, 2023 at 7:46 am

  7. @Toni Norton: I read an interesting take on this in, I think, Jan Swofford’s Ives bio (could be another one; I’ve got too many books about Ives to go check them all), in which Ives was searching for a good proper ending in preparation for Bernstein’s 1951 premiere. Originally it just ended on an F major chord, the key of the finale (btw the symphony follows an interesting key structure of B minor, A-flat major [a typically cheeky Ives joke of resolving a D dominant 7th to A-flat rather than G], F major, B minor and F major), which Ives found unsatisfactory, but then thought about how his father used sometimes to end the last piece on his band’s set with a blaring dissonance, just to indicate the show was over, and thought that was just the ticket: that final chord has every note in it except an F (amirite, Mark?).

    Comment by Vance Koven — February 4, 2023 at 10:59 am

  8. No, it’s not F, Vance, but the B that’s missing from the chord. (Call that a cyclic connection by omission: B is the key that began the symphony.) The upper parts of the final cadence move from C up to F, as expected, but with a Gflat squish on top of the F — just as if you’d reached up too quickly and hit two notes instead of one. I had not realized that Ives, half a century later, might have thought to update his turn-of-the-century masterpiece; I wouldn’t put it past him.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — February 5, 2023 at 5:03 pm

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