New England Philharmonic offers a welcome harbinger of spring

March 2, 2015 at 10:30 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Richard Pittman led the New England Philharmonic Sunday at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium.

Snow may still be piled high along the streets of Boston these days, but inside MIT’s Kresge Auditorium Sunday afternoon the New England Philharmonic brought the welcome sounds of spring.

Two of the pieces heard—Copland’s suite from Appalachian Spring, and Britten’s Spring Symphony—fully captured the sounds of a season that can’t come soon enough for many Northeasterners. In both colorful works, conductor Richard Pittman led the way.

No piece of music charts the long transformation from rugged winter to spring awakening quite like Britten’s Spring Symphony.  Cast in four large movements, the work is a colorful, even exotic affair and a fine example of the composer’s fresh and introspective musical style.

Sunday’s performance of this rarely performed gem recalled the orchestra’s acclaimed rendition of Britten’s War Requiem three seasons ago. Solidly and convincingly performed, the New England Philharmonic’s reading of the Spring Symphony showed the orchestra in some of its finest playing of the season.

Joining the orchestra were the singers of Chorus Pro Musica, under direction of Jamie Kirsch, and the Boston Children’s’ Chorus, directed by Anthony Trecek-King. Both ensembles sang with fine attention to the music’s light and dark shades. Chorus Pro Musica, with uniform blend, answered with robust phrases when called upon, their tone swelling to luminous sound in “Hail, bounteous May.”  The Children’s Chorus captured the playful energy of “The Dancing Boy.”

The three soloists heard in Sunday’s performance ranged from capable to excellent. Tenor Ray Bauwens sang with a brassy voice and crisp diction, though his enunciation sometimes prevented him from shaping the musical line. His delivery, though, well suited the finale, “London, to Thee I Do Present,” which sounded with conviction and bell-toned clarity. Sarah Pelletier brought a nimble, sparkling soprano to her solos and trios, and mezzo-soprano Krista River proved an equal partner, singing a rosy “Welcome Maids of Honor” and a svelte “Out on the Lawn I Lie in Bed.” To support the singers, Pittman led a sturdy accompaniment with a clear sense of the work’s architecture.

He did the same with Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

Due to its sunlit melodies and rustic charm, Copland’s most American of ballet suites is a work that never tires the ear even after repeated listening.

The New England Philharmonic was in fine form for much of the performance with winds, percussion, and strings handling the work’s chamber-like textures with delicacy. Early on there were some unfocused ensemble attacks and the occasional false entrance. But once the orchestra found its footing it gave a reading that shimmered in detail. The serene harmonies that open the work unfolded in sheets of silvery sound. The hymn, sounding full and bright in the brasses, soared over the darting string lines. And the variations on “Simple Gifts” seemed to float like leaves on a creek.

The concert’s opener, John Harbison’s Darkbloom, is a short but bristling overture that pulls together musical fragments from an abandoned opera based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. Taking its title from the character Vivian Darkbloom, the piece is darkly lyrical yet forthright in its dramatic presentation. It begins with a waltz-like theme that is spread between the winds and strings. The serene music is interrupted by moments of grinding energy before returning to the gentle lilt of the opening. Harbison makes colorful use of brassy riffs, snappy percussion, and harp glissandi, and Pittman led an insightful reading. The musicians of the New England Philharmonic responded with polished and graceful playing.

The next concert by the New England Philharmonic will feature music by Rachmaninoff and Schuller along with premieres of new works by Browne and Vores, with violinist Danielle Maddon as soloist 8 p.m. May 2 at Tsai Performance Center. nephilharmonic.org.

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