New England Philharmonic opens 40th season with two premieres

October 30, 2016 at 1:44 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

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

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

Adventurous programing is a tradition for the New England Philharmonic. Concerts in the past few seasons have featured the first performances of works by Bernard Hoffer and David Rakowski along with overlooked music by twentieth century composers.

Saturday night at the Tsai Performance Center, Richard Pittman rang in the orchestra’s 40th anniversary season with music by two local favorites, Andy Vores and Yehudi Wyner.

The opener, Vores’ Xylophonic, was written as a thank-you gift to the orchestra. (Vores served as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence from 2002 to 2005.) Spanning a mere four minutes, this curtain raiser, as the composer described it, “is an overstuffed suitcase that can’t stay closed.” Indeed, the piece is quite fun to listen to and packed with many musical ideas. Orchestral hits are followed by smears of scale figures, as s wirling wind lines coalesce in disjointed blasts of sound from the brass. And as the title indicates, the xylophone plays a key role, adding a touch of bright color to Vores’ vibrant orchestration. Pittman led the orchestra in a committed and glittery reading.

Wyner’s Piano Concerto, heard Saturday night, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Its subtitle, “Chiavi in mano,” translates to “keys in hand,” reflecting the ease with which the angular and athletic statements fit snuggly under the performer’s fingers. Spanning twenty minutes in a single movement, the work draws on vernacular musical fragments that when strung together never feel like pastiche. Wyner’s harmonic language is a stirring mix of dense chromaticism and almost tonal passages that lead to moments of romantic sweep. The big reveal, though, is a boogie-woogie, heard with rousing energy at piece’s end.

The soloist, Geoffrey Burleson, is a marvelous pianist and he handled the piece’s gnarly cross rhythms with crystalline precision and bracing musicality. The work has Mozartean clarity in the dialogue between piano and orchestra, and Burleson kept a fine ear to the revolving texture. Pittman coaxed playing of sensitivity and sturdy support from the orchestra.

The rest of the program was dedicated to orchestral works by Carl Ruggles and Béla Bartók.

Ruggles’ Evocations began its life as four short works for piano, and the composer made an orchestral version of them in 1943. Blistering with intensity, the twelve-minute piece makes use of Ruggles’ personal brand of atonality through dissonant counterpoint.

The work makes for intriguing listening, with slithery phrases coming together into satisfying climaxes. Wind lines wither like dying flowers and coil into stabbing chords. Throughout Ruggles paints a dense canvas of sound, with instrumental colors blurring together in unusual mixtures. The orchestra gave the work a performance of surging vitality to make a strong case for a composer whose music deserves to be heard more often.

The New England Philharmonic has, in recent seasons, proved itself to be an ensemble on the move. The orchestra has shown remarkable improvements in overall tone quality, blend, and precision, and Saturday’s performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was a case in point.

Bartók’s most popular orchestral work is also one of the most difficult in the repertoire, consisting of many exposed parts and virtuosic lines for each section.

Pittman led a nimble account with fleet tempos that still allowed room for the phrases to breathe. There were a few moments of imprecision. The opening octaves of the first movement grinded out of tune, the viola passage in the third movement lacked definition, and the trumpet theme in the finale failed to soar over waves of string sound.

Elsewhere, however, the ensemble’s playing could match that of most mid-level professional orchestras. The New England Philharmonic is particularly strong in the wind section, and the second movement’s “Game of Pairs” featured fine duets from bassoons, oboes, clarinets, and flutes. Bartók’s quotation of the march from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony had the right touch of mocking humor, and the furious lines of the finale reached climaxes of surging intensity that put a fine end to a challenging program. Kudos to Pittman and the orchestra for pulling it off so well.

Richard Pittman will lead the New England Philharmonic in music by Schuman, Hoffer, Vores, and Patterson 3 p.m. December 11 at the Tsai Performance Center.

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