New England Philharmonic closes season with two premieres

May 1, 2016 at 12:44 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

David Rakowski's Symphony No. 6 received its world premiere Saturday night from David Pittman and the New England Philharmonic.

David Rakowski’s Symphony No. 6 received its world premiere Saturday night from the New England Philharmonic.

 The New England Philharmonic has a fine reputation for adventurous programming and new music consistently makes up a large portion of the orchestra’s seasonal concerts.

Two new works were the focus of the ensemble’s final concert of the season Saturday night at the Tsai Performance Center, where conductor Richard Pittman led premieres by David Hertzberg and David Rakowski along with music by Sibelius and Berg.

The concert opened with the Boston premiere of Hertzberg’s Spectre of the Spheres.  

Hertzberg’s star is currently on the rise with his music being performed on elite stages such as Tanglewood, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy c]Center, and Carnegie Hall. Spectre of the Spheres, winner of the NEP’s annual Call for Scores competition, is a musical depiction of the aurora borealis as told through a poem by Wallace Stevens. 

Hertzberg’s score, which clocks in at just over ten minutes, is wonderfully colorful and an evocative depiction of a striking natural phenomenon, similar to Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica and John Luther Adams’ Dark Waves. 

The music develops glacially, unfolding from a veil of harmonics and wind flutters that shimmer in space like the northern lights themselves. As the piece progresses, dense clouds of descending passages and stark string and wind statements form, carrying the piece to a sudden conclusion. 

Pittman led the orchestra in a reading of bold commitment to give the piece a powerful performance. 

The other new work of the evening, David Rakowski’s Sixth Symphony, was composed at the MacDowell Colony during another natural event, in this case the harrowing snowstorms that hit the Northeast last winter. Cast in three movements and lasting about half an hour, Rakowski’s arresting new symphony is more serious in nature than his Fifth Symphony, which the NEP premiered in 2014. 

Darkness prevails in each of the three movements. The first unfolds from mourning cellos and snarling muted trombones. Brass statements that coalesce in bristly stacks of harmony interrupt static dissonances in the woodwinds. Providing the backdrop of this movement is a long sustained pitch that roots the music in the key of D. This is tonality by assertion. 

The second movement features the woodwinds and opens delicately, with clarinet and flute chords budding from a slithery bassoon solo. Elsewhere strings and winds stack chords upon one another to create halo effects that were left to resonate in the hall.

The final movement is a nervous scherzo. The music stems from serpentine statements in the winds and grows into bursts of phrases in the strings and brass. Disjointed figures creep into the texture, recalling, coincidentally or not, flurries of snow.

Pittman led the New England Philharmonic in playing of rapt intensity to make a strong case for Rakowski’s work.

Fine playing, for the most part, also marked Saturday’s performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto.

Composed in memory of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and architect Walter Gropius, Berg’s concerto navigates between darkness and light. Death, referenced through a quotation of Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug,” is ever present.

The soloist, NEP concertmaster Danielle Maddon, has been the center of a number of works written for the orchestra, including concertos by Bernard Hoffer and Andy Vores. Her performance of the Berg concerto was colorful and she traversed the work with commitment, handling the opening fifths with silver-laced tone and the ghostly Viennese waltzes with rich amber hues. 

Pittman wove a soft bed of accompaniment and the musicians of the orchestra performed well, playing with plush tone that was particularly effective in the death-haunted closing section of the concerto. 

Yet the orchestra’s soft approach kept this performance from being a compelling one. The waltz-like sections that close the first movement failed to lift off the ground, and the concluding bars suffered from a few untidy attacks and pitchy intonation.

Those problems were largely remedied in the opener of the concert’s second half, Sibelius’ The Oceanides. For all of the popularity of Sibelius’ music, it’s still surprising that a beautiful piece such as this one is performed rarely.  

Save for a few tentative horn attacks, the musicians of the New England Philharmonic capably captured the composer’s sunny, windswept seascape, with especially fine contributions from the woodwinds.

The New England Philharmonic will open its 40th anniversary season with music by Vores, Norman, Wyner, Ruggles, and Bartók 8 p.m. October 29 at the Tsai Performance Center.

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