New England Philharmonic charms with Rakowski premiere, music of the ‘50s

May 4, 2014 at 1:27 pm

By David Wright

Richard Pittman conducted the New England Philharmonic Saturday night at Tsai Performance Center.

It was a little spooky, like looking at photos of different people in different places and seeing the same guy standing in the back of each one.

As Richard Pittman, music director of the New England Philharmonic, told the audience at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center Saturday night, all he was trying to do was choose a variety of interesting pieces to program along with the world premiere of David Rakowski’s Zephyrs.  He picked works by Gunther Schuller, Roy Harris and Sergei Prokofiev—a nice mix, he thought, of eras, styles, and nationalities.

It was only much later that Pittman noticed that all the pieces had been composed in or around 1952.  Schuller was then at the very start of his composing career, Prokofiev at the end of his, and Harris somewhere in the middle.

And so it happened that, on Saturday night, an energetic and well-drilled New England Philharmonic under Pittman’s baton delivered not only a vivid world premiere, but a snapshot of the music world 60 years ago—a world with which, it turned out, debutant Rakowski had quite a bit in common.

The scintillating high percussion and winds of Schuller’s A Dramatic Overture, Op. 1, for example, were fresh in the audience’s ears when Rakowski set the flutes a-flutter again in his airy piece, which is the first movement of his Dance Episodes (Symphony No. 5), scheduled to be premiered in full by this orchestra next fall.

The swirling breezes and fluttering streamers of Zephyrs grew out of a single note E, heard at the outset and for much of the piece.  Flashing woodwind scales and glissandi for strings and harp kept the winds swirling as pizzicato strings introduced a complex but catchy rhythm, leading to a lively coda of jazzy runs over a walking bass.  An American sense of fresh air and wide open spaces linked this work to its compatriots on the program, and even some of the Russian “wide shots” in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7.

When he composed A Dramatic Overture in 1951, Gunther Schuller was 26, and already an experienced horn player in orchestras.  He has cited two pieces by other composers as influences on this one, but happily one doesn’t have to imagine what a hybrid of Berlioz’s Overture to Le Corsaire and Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, would sound like.  Schuller adopted the fast-slow-fast scheme of the former and the twelve-tone discipline of the latter, and produced a made-in-America overture that was entirely his own.

Schuller’s bold, atonal, jangly opening was a bracing way to start a concert.  Soon, however, a swooping slow tune for violins developed under two continuous high flute notes at the interval of a fourth, as if you were listening to Mahler on your I-pod when the factory’s noon whistle got stuck.  After such oddities, the clarinet’s long solo and some lush writing for strings sounded downright conventional, but soon the music stepped out again, first to a Bernstein beat, then to something brash and brassy à la William Schuman, and the work closed in a swinging blaze.

Following Zephyrs on the program, Roy Harris’s Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra matched a brawny brand of pianism with robust variations on American hymn tunes.  Harris composed the piece in 1954 for his wife Johana, evidently a pianist who cultivated the percussive side of her instrument.

In Saturday’s performance, the able pianist Stephen Drury reveled in the piano as an instrument with hammers, alternating between ringing chords and glittering, gamelan-like figurations that recalled Debussy.

Similarly, conductor Pittman brought out Harris’s orchestration in primary colors, using the sections as blocks of sound with minimal blending.  But who needs blending when one can achieve vivid sonic effects by throwing together, say, a chorale for low brass, high woodwind trills, and downward glissandi in the strings?

With so much kaleidoscopic variation going on, the lack of showy, concerto-style writing for the piano soloist hardly mattered, and the piece easily sustained interest for its concise quarter of an hour.

Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony was also on the brief side as Russian symphonies go, and simple enough in character that Prokofiev considered titling it “Children’s Symphony.”  One can only imagine how perplexed Prokofiev, Shostakovich and other composers were after being denounced in 1948 by Soviet authorities for “formalism,” i.e., being more interested in art for art’s sake than in advancing socialism.  The Seventh Symphony, composed in 1952, a year before the death of both Prokofiev and Joseph Stalin, seems to retreat into a world of pure Russian melodies and landscapes, with a bizarre twist or two.

With the first movement’s clear sonata form, Prokofiev didn’t exactly rebut the charge of “formalism,” but the somber first theme and the optimistic, swelling one that followed it wouldn’t have been out of place in Soviet cinema of the time.  (Ironically, that second theme ended up on the soundtrack of the Hollywood adaptation of Pasternak’s banned novel Doctor Zhivago.)

A lighter closing theme for the exposition is traditional too, but the one in this movement was a striking interruption, a strange tick-tock of xylophone and glockenspiel.  Tricky to execute precisely, this unsettling effect came off to great effect on Saturday night, as did the other rich themes of the movement.

Pittman and the orchestra performed the symphony with excellent ensemble and attention to balance, and many imaginative details.  The music’s more fanciful or dance-like moments could have used a lighter touch, but perhaps the bass-heavy, “bear dance” quality of the waltz movement was an intentional effect.

The orchestra’s sonorous string tone showed to good effect in the brief Andante espressivo third movement, with its delicate touches of orchestral color.

If there were leaden moments in the earlier movements, the sparkling, comical circus finale had no such problems.  A fast four-to-a-bar drove the music forward as the players deftly executed Prokofiev’s many humorous effects, including slowing down to a jaunty march that Richard Rodgers might have written.

The ominous tick-tock music returned at the close, dwindling to a quiet ending, a tiny gesture of defiance that Prokofiev eventually had to withdraw, substituting a loud ending for performance in the U.S.S.R.

But happily, this concert was in Boston, U.S.A., where composers’ music is played more or less as they intended, and it seems as though a thousand orchestras bloom, each with something fresh, intriguing and well-played to offer.

The performance will not be repeated.  The 2014-15 season of the New England Philharmonic will begin with world premieres by Bernard Hoffer and David Rakowski and other works October 25.  nephilharmonic.org; 855-463-7445.

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