IN: Reviews

Young Orchestra Brightens Colorful Church


Composer Marcea McGuire with conductor Julian Gau.

Schmoozing with the audience before the concert and during the intermission at Church of the Covenant in Boston, Horizon Ensemble’s volunteer players, inspired by their bon-vivant leader Julian Gau, broadened and diversified  concert protocols into something resembling a college mixer. Further democratizing, the orchestra was seated without risers, though that obscured most of the players from our views, with the exception of timpanist Kendall Floyd, who played from the altar with ceremonial candlesticks flanking her cans. Overall, a friendly buzz obtained, pervading the entire musical-social affair with relaxed expectations and dulling some critical barbs.

Julian Gau, a graduate student in conducting at Boston Conservatory under Bruce Hangen (and a gifted writer for this journal), had charmed 48 of his dearest friends and colleagues into journeying with him in “Flow.” Gau began the show with a wind and brass confection, More Old Wine in New Bottles, which British composer Gordon Jacob had penned in 1978 in appreciation of English folk tunes. The tall, lean Gau relaxedly explained that, “Wind would flow through the instruments like wine from a bottle to one’s glass.” The tuttis ripped with almost San Marcoesque exuberance in the lofty Upjohn Gothic sanctuary (especially since the PA had been left on during the first half), but the 18 individual voices put their solos across with clarity. Gau drew subtleties not always forthcoming from wind and brass bands, never allowing blasts or blats. Subtly shaping with his eloquent, long-fingered left hand, he underlined transformations of the tunes and maintained long legato lines. No. 3, The Lincolnshire Poacher, opened with lively burblings from a delightful piccolo solo, warranting general toasts with a pink sparkler. Joan to the Maypole, the fourth and last of the set, combined the innocence of a country fair with the vehemence of a fox hunt, pleasantly emerging genie-like from in the resolutely 1950s bottles. Gau took it on its own terms without resorting to over-accenting or over-salesmanship.

Continuing his charm offensive, Gau told us that Mozart’s Magic Flute was great fun, and that we should hear the three opening chords as references to Masonic rites. The overture, with its strong wind writing followed the folk tune suite (and after all, Magic Flute debuted at a Volk’s theater) with the inevitability of a disco segue. After having heard nothing at all to complain about from the winds and brass, the opening chords from the strings sounded a bit ragged. Tuning and lineup surprisingly improved during faster moments. This could have been a great curtain raiser for an impromptu production of the entire opera.

Marcea McGuire* wrote Flow to Gau’s request. To set up this world premier he told us that the composer’s first work for orchestra took inspiration from “the flow of poetry and air.” Clarinet, horn and bassoon flowed mysterioso before the rest of the wind section expanded, then the strings too took up something of a flowing lament, unfolding like a Bruckner symphony, though weightlessly. A pizzicato started on the cellos with flutes broadening, but again it took a lot of time for the full orchestra to develop. A heartbeat throbbed quietly before a passacaglia started to emerge, a big scalar passage nodded in affirmation, but then petered out and flowed into the middle distance. With some tightening, Flow could become the center of a larger piece flanked by more decisive outer movements. One could assume from the apparent mastery of the morphing elements that Gau and McGuire had collaborated with some intensity and that enough rehearsal time had gone with the Flow.

Horizon Ensemble’s engaged and fresh take on Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (Scottish) was not without felicities; it gave more pleasure from listening rather than keeping score. One could commend Gau’s vision in some general observations. He exhibited patience in dynamic buildups and never rushed. Lots of intent showed as well as a plan to enrobe the work in drama. Gau signaled tempo changes with a big clear beat, and the somewhat scorebound players followed. We were struck almost dumb by some delicious big ritards. In the first movement, fateful horncalls, recalling the earlier Mozart, set up some wonderful storm and stress. A downward scale gave the “all clear.”

In the fairy scherzo, never fussy or busy, Gau kept the gears well-meshed in Mendelssohn’s sprightly leprechaun’s conveyance.

The very expressive slow movement witnessed Gau artfully defining the long slurs and dynamic hairpins. The next great horn theme became agitated before yielding to noble repose. It’s hard to imagine how such a young conductor could elicit such sentiment without sentimentality.

In the final movement, the offbeats sounded ragged, and some of the moving parts seemed to have their own ideas, but by the end, the Marlborough rondo or rather Scottish Dance led to a sparkling coda, which though not immaculate, indicated a great collective intent and left all smiling.

Callouts to individuals: Principal clarinetist Ning-Chieh Tsai almost throughout, Nick Ochoa, for the brilliant high horn solo in the end of the piece, and Jack Krugman, horn #3, for the solo in the slow movement along with the cellists. 

Horizon Ensemble expects to return to Church of the Covenant in July or August.

* Marcea McGuire, an M.M. candidate in composition at the Boston Conservatory, shares her lived experience through music. Her work has been commissioned by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints and Lillith Vocal Ensemble. She aims to express the unique struggles her community faces, and to celebrate her culture and history.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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