New England Philharmonic closes season in eclectic fashion with a Vores premiere

May 3, 2015 at 12:37 pm

By David Wright

Andy Vores’ “Drive” was given its world premiere by the New England Philharmonic Saturday night.

It is generally understood that the hardest performance to get for a new piece isn’t the premiere, it’s the deuxième.  With that second performance, a piece has an improved chance of a third, and a fourth. Without it, a piece falls quickly into obscurity, elbowed aside by still more premieres.

Composer Andy Vores experienced a different kind of deuxième Saturday night in the concert of orchestral showpieces given by the New England Philharmonic at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center. Instead of a return engagement for the Violin Concerto Vores had composed in 2005 for this orchestra and its concertmaster, Danielle Maddon, Vores was attending the world premiere of a second concerto he’d been commissioned to write for exactly the same artists.

“This hardly ever happens,” he said in remarks from the stage before the performance.  “I had to decide, should I make it complement the first one, or contrast completely with it?”

In the end the new work, a single movement titled Drive, did a little of each, emulating its predecessorThe Other I in its call-and-response interactions of soloist and orchestra, but laying down a whole new groove inspired by matters on the composer’s mind in 2015.

In a program note, Vores said he was both disappointed and intrigued by how harmonically static much of today’s pop music is, often alternating between two chords for the entire song.  He imagined music that did just that, evoking the hypnotic or consciousness-opening feeling of driving a car across the country, the dashed line clicking by for hour after hour.

It sounds like a recipe for pattern music à la Phillip Glass, but the results were anything but minimalist, as Vores concealed his two basic chords with constant variation in counterpoint and scoring, like the composer of a passacaglia.

Personal losses in the composer’s life–the deaths of two cherished female relatives of the composer, one old and one relatively young–prompted him to frame the work with elegiac passages, so that it would evoke not just a geographical journey, but the metaphorical story of departure and return that is a person’s life.

In both the meditative opening and the smooth, drum-driven road music that followed, soloist Danielle Maddon’s discreetly amplified violin tended to speak in single long notes or brief exclamations, and quite strikingly too, but one did wonder when the concerto-style fiddling would begin.

At last, a series of challenges flung back and forth between the soloist and individual orchestra players led to a long solo cadenza with occasional orchestral interjections, showcasing Maddon’s distinctive combination of expressive tone and cool technical mastery.  Conductor Richard Pittman expertly managed both the road music and the pointed dialogue.

Eventually, the soloist restarted the road groove herself, the orchestra joined in with a long crescendo ending in an elegiac echo, and it was clear that this prolific composer had added yet another attractive, thought-provoking, and eminently repeatable work to the orchestral repertoire.

The Welsh-born composer’s piece was preceded on the program by two American works, Michael Browne’s How the Solar System Was Won and Gunther Schuller’s Meditation (Symphonic Study). Although these pieces were separated in time by 65 years (2012 and 1947, respectively), both composers were present Saturday night and spoke briefly to supplement the printed program.

Browne’s piece had been selected, Pittman said, from 130 submissions in the orchestra’s annual Call for Scores.  The composer is a doctoral student in composition at the University of Michigan and an unabashed fan of the films of Stanley Kubrick, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The admittedly corny Hollywood title of Browne’s piece was, in fact, the working title that the whimsical Kubrick used while filming 2001.

Browne unabashedly embraced Hollywood’s lush orchestral idiom as he evoked the order and chaos of space, the planets secure in their orbits until the occasional violent collision disrupts everything and creates something entirely new, such as Earth’s moon or Saturn’s rings.  Familiar cinematic grooves—the pounding drums, the big string tune, the action scene driven by staccato brass, the klezmer-style clarinet—orbited and collided in Browne’s eventful piece.

This composer, like Vores, found in his piece a metaphor for life—in this case, for the regularities and disruptions that “contribute most to shaping our personalities.”  But a listener could be excused for simply finding it all vastly entertaining, and reaching for another handful of popcorn.

On the other hand, Schuller’s piece, just his second composition for orchestra, was composed in admiration of what he called the “atonal tonality” of Alban Berg, particularly that composer’s Violin Concerto.  In it one found the precocious 21-year-old composer expertly guiding the orchestra through a meditative landscape of pianissimo strings and expressive flute solos.

Eventually strings soared, woodwinds curled, orchestral colors blended and separated, and an allegro episode broke out with echoes of The Rite of Spring—the piece that, Schuller told the audience, “was the reason most of us became composers back then.”  But Berg’s concerto style returned to preside over the quiet closing pages, with an eloquent solo by the orchestra’s principal cellist, Jason Coleman.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, a composer much imitated and even appropriated by movie composers, was featured in the concert’s second half.  But the Rachmaninoff of Symphonic Dances, his last work, proved to be anything but the lush, small-r romantic of Brief Encounter.  But however unlike the opulent piano concertos it is, this piece is equally Russian in the way its dry wit, piquant dissonance, and irony hide a sentimental core.

In remarks to the audience, conductor Pittman made his pitch for Rachmaninoff as an underrated master of orchestration with his own unmistakable sound.  Then he and the players proceeded to demonstrate what he meant.

Although this part-time orchestra didn’t have quite the sheen or singularity of purpose that develop over time in more established ensembles, its rather unblended sound offered a fascinating view inside the chemistry lab of Rachmaninoff’s orchestration, and Pittman’s observation was confirmed again and again.

The performance also scored high in accuracy, vigor, and realization of the dance rhythms, especially the second movement’s anxious, melancholy waltz.  This is still Rachmaninoff, and the phrases could have bloomed more in the lyrical episodes, but overall the new-music champion Pittman led a powerful, persuasive performance of an old piece he admires.

Dancing, driving, orbiting, meditating—this concert titled “Odyssey” found one journeying back to the future, to a place where the music that sounded most “modern” was composed 70 years ago, in contemplation of exotic foreign idioms, while the music of today dealt in familiar American sounds, intriguingly stirred and inflected.

This is, of course, a restoration of the normal situation in past centuries, when the opera house, the café, and the town square passed the hit tunes and new sounds amongst each other. Still, one can’t help feeling a touch of nostalgia for modernism.

The program was the final presentation of the New England Philharmonic’s current season.  The orchestra’s 2015-16 season will begin with a program of 20th-century works in honor of Gunther Schuller’s 90th birthday, 3 p.m. Oct. 25. nephilharmonic.org; 855-463-7445.

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