IN: Reviews

Rivers Flow Within Club

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Somerville’s inviting Center for Arts at the Armory on Highland Avenue, which offers a sizeable concert venue, as well as the ROOTED Armory Café, hosted a concert by the Orchestra Book Club, a unique organization with tripartite intent—a monthly sightreading party of great orchestral works open to any and all who wish to play; two (or more) public performances per season in the same spirit (for a wide audience and with what founder and conductor Reuben Stern calls a “book club ethos featuring discussion and demonstrations before each work”; and, lastly, mentorship of young composers through “workshopping,” recording and performing their works.

Sunday’s second-ever Orchestra Book Club concert, “Homeland Rivers,” featured two epic pieces depicting the courses of the Moldau, which flows from springs in the Bohemian Mountains, through the countryside and Prague, ultimately to its mouth in the North Sea, and the mighty Mississippi, from a small lake in Minnesota, through Minneapolis, Chicago, past St. Louis, and through New Orleans to its delta in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bedřich Smetana’s Vltava (The Moldau), the second movement from the six-movement E minor suite, Má Vlast (My Country) came across with insight and humor as Stern laid out the themes this popular tone poem paints with sound: the river’s source in the quiet, bubbling emergence of two streams with semiquavering flutes and then clarinet softly initiating the flow. Merging into the robust river arrived in higher strings, ultimately joined by lower, with pizzicato sparkles. Horns and trumpets evoked majestic, deep Bohemian woodlands, announcing hunters in the background and then quiet fields and pastures, through to a country wedding on the banks appreciated by folksong-inspired polka; harp and muted strings evoked quiet woodwinds; the rapids above Prague emerged, and eventually the magnificent castle Vyšehrad above the old city in Prague hove into sonic sight. With insight and humor, Stern introduced each theme verbally without a nanogram of pedanticism; the audience thus leaned forward with anticipation for the entire work. The full, appropriately flowing version delighted.

Following a brief intermission, everyone eagerly reassembled to hear about African American composer Florence Price through her 1930s Mississippi Suite, which tonally paints its might from first trickle to the Gulf of Mexico. The 2,348 miles course as Price envisioned it embraces native American pow-wows, magical Black American spirituals, 20th-century popular music, suffering, conflict and triumph.

The volunteer players heeded Stern’s expressive conducting from the river’s source—with sounds of woodland bird calls, bucolic chorales and flow into the second section featuring woodwinds and percussion evoking Native American encampments, followed by quotes of four Negro spirituals, jazz and energetic and multi-mooded new music to depict slavery, despair, turbulence yet hope. The climax arrived with various melodies intertwined: a zydeco strain merged with “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” before a quiet ending.

Post-event mingling conveyed a spirit of meaningful association. While musicologists and reviewers alike have noted the parallel between The Moldau and Mississippi Suite, suggesting Price’s likely inspiration and modeling from the former, it might have been a subject of the formal OBC discussion. Yet, omitting that led to attendees “getting it” on their own, based on conversational snippets heard in the hall.

This Orchestra Book Club event fostered reflection, facilitated by Stern and their impressive orchestra, whose members include 8 professional instrumentalists, 9 conservatory students and 42 “amateurs,” whose main jobs are not performing on their instruments (some are musicians of other flavors or music teachers, but most with day jobs in disparate fields). Audience reception reflected the delightfully welcoming spirit, emanating what Stern writes as “our mission…to lower barriers to entry within the orchestral world for performers, audience, and composers through fun, low stakes, accessible events … to bring communities together.” And the event more than succeeded on those terms.

One online source lists 63 orchestras in Massachusetts, 47 of them in Greater Boston. Is another one needed? Seemingly so, when it draws such a widely divergent, refreshingly young crowd who, at least from the chatter, were excited with the approach. Those of us drawn to choral or orchestral sightreading events will be tempted to join the Orchestra Book Club with our music stands and memories and partake with Stern and their collective approach.

Julie Ingelfinger studied piano at the Hartt School of Music, Aspen Music Festival and School and at Harvard. She enjoys her day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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

  1. Thoughtful, detailed and informative review of this concert, with performers and conductor, Reuben Stern, and their fine skills.

    Comment by Joan Tenser — February 13, 2024 at 2:46 pm

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