Mercury Orchestra revives an American gem with Beach’s “Gaelic” symphony

August 8, 2019 at 12:46 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Channing Yu conducted the Mercury Orchestra Wednesday night at Jordan Hall. File photo: Mercury Orchestra

Works based upon Irish themes once graced the symphonic repertoire. Following in the footsteps of Charles Villiers Stanford, whose own “Irish Symphony” premiered in 1887, composers such as Michele Esposito, Victor Herbert, and Hamilton Harty penned their own works that recast Irish folk music within orchestral forces.

But no score captured the contours and Irish music quite like Amy Beach’s Symphony in E minor. Subtitled the “Gaelic,” the symphony is a deft union of song, orchestration, and musical development, the result seeming to express all the sorrow and longing of that nation’s rich folksong repertoire.

Performances of the symphony have been rare since the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered it in 1896. Channing Yu and the Mercury Orchestra revived Beach’s symphony as part of an Irish-themed program Wednesday night at Jordan Hall.

The concert, part of the Landmarks series and originally scheduled to take place at the DCR Hatch Shell, was moved indoors due to threat of rain. The location change proved fortunate as Jordan Hall’s acoustic allowed for Beach’s elegant scoring to resonate naturally.

The “Gaelic” Symphony is a marvel of craftsmanship, with clever instrumental writing casting the quoted songs in gentle shades of darkness and light. Beach’s  taut formal design allows room for the dramatic arc to unfold freely. The composer’s debt to Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World” is obvious in her use of similar key, oboe and English horn solos, and moments of pastoral charm. But the “Gaelic” is a wholly powerful and affecting conception that has retained its freshness over the past century.

The first movement is spun from Beach’s own “Dark is the Night,” with the seafaring song’s chromatic phrases setting a tempestuous tone. The Irish tunes “The Little Field of Barley” and “What Way Did She Go?” make up the inner movements, where Beach paints a warm bucolic scene through delicate woodwind writing. The final movement, drawn from a cadential figure Beach employed in the opening movement, builds to a satisfying conclusion.

Yu’s reading of the symphony highlighted every nuance of the work’s graceful melodic turns and earthy power. The conductor drew attention to Beach’s smooth shifts in orchestral color, and the Mercury Orchestra answered with playing of assurance and sensitivity.

Though a community ensemble, the Mercury musicians play together with superb technical polish and a plush corporate blend. The players carefully unraveled the tension of the symphony’s opening passages, the string phrases ultimately flowering into bright statements in solo French horn and trumpet.

The inner movements also showcased fine solo and ensemble moments. In the “Alla siciliana,” a soaring French horn line made for a fluent introduction to the main theme, which a solo oboe rendered with rustic grace.

The third movement is the heart of the symphony, and there concertmaster Hyunsu Ko’s cadenza was a particular highlight, her line joining the solo cellist’s silver-laced melody for a svelte duet. For the finale, Yu opened the throttle to carry the music’s energy into the final peroration, which brought a cumulative sense of resolve to this engrossing reading.

The concert opened with another rarity in Charles Villiers Stanford’s Phaudrig Crohoore.

Based on a poem by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, this twenty-minute cantata tells the story of a rough-and-tumble Irishman who interrupts his girlfriend’s wedding to another man, runs off with her, and eventually dies fighting in the 1798 Irish rebellion.

Though it lacks the melodic strength of Stanford’s opera Shamus O’Brien and the dramatic punch of The Revenge, Phaudrig Crohoore is an engaging work in its own right, its music conveying the humor and tragedy of its stage-Irish story.

Yu’s thoughtful direction mined the work of both of those elements. For the most part, the New World Chorale, prepared by Holly MacEwen Krafka, rendered the declamatory text with precision while smoothing over some of the text’s original Irish dialect.

The singing was shaky in spots, the ensemble tone thin in the exposed sections. But in other places the singers’ gentle approach paid dividends. When the women sang of the girl seeing Phaudrig at her wedding, the spare and quiet music conveyed poignant sorrow.

Yu wove a feathery bed of accompaniment well matched to singers’ phrasing while highlighting the subtle emotions of each scene. Mournful solo oboe captured the girl’s weeping, and sweeping passages in the full orchestra at work’s close set the stage for the chorus’s telling of Phaudrig’s final deeds. 

Christopher Wilkins will lead the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in music by Mussorgsky, Barber, Dvorák, and Vaughan Williams 7 p.m. August 14 at the DCR Hatch Shell.

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