New England Philharmonic serves up two contrasted premieres
On the morning of September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key saw something he didn’t expect.
An oversized American flag flapped in the breeze over Fort McHenry, symbolizing that the twenty-seven-hour bombardment by the British navy had failed to break American defenses. Moved by the vision, Key captured the scene in a poem that would eventually become the national anthem.
In celebration of the two-hundredth aniversary of The Star Spangled Banner, Richard Pittman led the New England Philharmonic in the Boston premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s Chesapeake: Summer, 1814 Saturday night at the Tsai Performance Center.
A dramatic cantata for two choirs and orchestra, Chesapeake is a glossy retelling of the War of 1812 and the events that led up to the writing of Key’s verse.
Gandolfi’s score is a patchwork of dance tunes, marches, and patriotic airs cast in a sing-song style reminiscent of Ernest Bloch’s America. The double chorus intones verses of Yankee Doodle, Rule Britannia, and even “See the Conquering Hero Comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus between the jovial strains of Mrs. Madison’s Minuet, Durang’s Hornpipe, and clamorous battle music that sound from the orchestra.
Threading the score is the Star Spangled Banner itself, heard first in its original version, To Anacreon in Heaven, before being spliced into melodic fragments that bubble up in the orchestral accompaniment. Key’s four-verse setting of the song, spiced with some colorful chord voicing, brings the piece to a rousing conclusion. The audience is invited to stand and sing the first verse one last time.
In the performance Saturday night, the Simmons College and MIT choirs sang the vocal parts with capable blend and diction. The voices, unfortunately, didn’t quite match the NEP’s gusto in the weightier passages, resulting in some balance problems.
Performed to a slide show of historic battle scenes and landscapes projected onto a screen, Chesapeake has the same nostalgia and emotional appeal of a Ken Burns documentary. As concert music, it can seem a little hokey. But with its stirring populism, the work should have little trouble reaching a wide audience for patriotic holidays beyond this bicentennial year.
Pittman and the NEP also offered the world premiere of Bernard Hoffer’s Violin Concerto Saturday night.
Written for concertmaster Danielle Maddon, it’s an attractive work that recasts the dazzling technique and recognizable music of romantic-style concertos in a lithe, ear-tingling musical language.
The first movement, “Dialogues,” is more of an argument than a discussion. Terse rhythmic motives, passed between soloist and orchestra, swell into a cacophony before breaking up. The second movement spotlights the solo violin in a plaintive melody over harp accompaniment. Their tonal lines mingle and meander into chromatic wilderness for shimmering dissonances.
The third movement showcases the soloist in some dexterous fiddling. Here, Hoffer’s jazz leanings are easily recognizable. Syncopated bursts in the brass recall the power-chord arrangements of Stan Kenton’s band, and the orchestra’s quicksilver lines have the harmonic daring of bebop licks.
Maddon, a violinist with spot-on intonation and silvery tone, handled her parts effortlessly. Pittman and the NEP, in their most crisp and energetic playing of the evening, gave Hoffer’s concerto bold advocacy.
In a concert billed as “An American Anthem,” one would hardly expect a Shostakovich symphony to appear on the program. Yet the composer’s Symphony No. 1 in F major, with its collage of styles, is as familiar as an American quilt.
Composed by the nineteen-year-old composer as a graduation piece, the First Symphony is a witty and vivacious work. Its combination of waltzes, marches, and mock-romantic airs would become the hallmark of his mature instrumental music.
Nimbly played motives from NEP trumpets and woodwinds helped pull off the music’ humor, but the orchestra, as a whole, didn’t perform this symphony with the same clarity heard in the other pieces on the program. The chattering lines of the first movement were muddled due to some unfocused string playing. The biggest problems stemmed from the sour intonation in the exposed passages in cellos and basses.
The symphony’s forceful, circus-style moments fared the best. Pittman led with lively tempos. The twinkling piano runs, cymbal crashes, and stirring melodies in the full orchestra sounded full and focused.
In its final concert of the season, the New England Philharmonic will perform music by Schuller, Rakowski, Prokofiev, and Harris, featuring pianist Steven Drury 8 p.m. May 3 at the Tsai Performance Center. nephilharmonic.org
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