Boyles leads a rich NEP program with belated Amy Beach premiere

December 6, 2021 at 12:34 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

The original 1903 orchestral version of Jephtha’s Daughter by Amy Beach was heard in its world premiere Sunday by the New England Philharmonic, conducted by Adam Kerry Boyles.

For all the attention Amy Beach’s music continues to receive, certain works in her copious output remain unexplored.

Fortunately, guest conductor Adam Kerry Boyles and the New England Philharmonic shed new light on Jephthah’s Daughter, a large-scale work for soprano and orchestra, which was given its belated world premiere Sunday afternoon at the Tsai Performance Center.

Composed in 1903, the manuscript of Jephthah’s Daughter was confiscated by German authorities when the composer left the country before the outbreak of World War I.  The score was returned to Beach 25 years later in 1928 yet sat dormant for nearly seventy years. The Boston Academy of Music presented the work at MIT in 1995 in a rendition for voice and piano. Sunday’s performance offered the premiere of the original orchestral version, 118 years after its composition.

With its Wagnerian lyricism and rich orchestration, Jephthah’s Daughter is a welcome rediscovery. The text, crafted from the Book of Judges by Charles-Louis Mollevaut, relays feelings of lamentation and betrayal. Jephthah’s unnamed daughter has discovered she will be sacrificed, the unintended consequence of a thoughtless promise her father made to God in return for success in battle.

Beach’s 12-minute work resonates with a powerful expressive intensity, much greater than the more restrained style familiar in her many songs and “Gaelic” symphony. The soaring yet punishing vocal part, underscored by dark string and wind lines, project a range of emotions to stunning operatic effect.

Soprano Sara Pelletier captured every sensation created by the character’s dilemma—her dark voice conveying fear, sorrow, anger, and reluctant acceptance of fate. Boyles, a finalist for the NEP directorship, led the orchestra in a reading marked by soulful conviction.

Adam Kerry Boyles

The conductor also offered the Boston premiere of Bernard Rands’ DREAM. The work was given its world premiere by Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2019.

At eleven minutes, the work is less a depiction of a specific dream than a reflection upon the process of dreaming itself. Rand’s music is fittingly unpredictable, with fantastic juxtapositions and diversions—common in dreams—pushing the energy forward. The unifying feature is a long melody that Rands has used in other works. Heard in fragmented form until the end, the theme offers momentary solace.

Sunday’s reading resulted in a surprising sonic warmth. Bold orchestral colors and serene textures recalled Debussy. The central melody, revealed by the strings in full at work’s conclusion, even took on Mahlerian grandeur. Leading with firm gestures, Boyles mined the subtle urgency from this attractive work.

Michael Gandolfi’s Stepping Up, heard in its world premiere, took on similar vitality. The second of five fanfares was written in honor of former NEP music director Richard Pittman. After suffering a severe stroke in March 2020, Pittman was forced to step down as NEP’s music director, a position he held for over twenty years.

Stepping Up packs a dramatic punch in its five-minute span. A jagged phrase transforms smoothly into a tuneful melody that flowers in the full ensemble. Throughout, Boyles drew bold colors from every section.

The New England Philharmonic has returned with vigor after the difficulties of the last two years. Ravel’s second suite from Daphnis et Chloé, also heard Sunday, resulted some of the ensemble’s best playing in recent memory.

Boyles lingered in the opening “Daybreak,” avoiding the fitful and overly orgasmic style of familiar readings. Instead, the conductor built the tension gently over the long term, the music culminating in powerful chords.

Winds, strings, and brass coalesced in warm sonorities in “Pantomine.” Principal flute Michael Horowitz rendered his featured line with velvety tone and dexterity. Alto flutist Kristen Dye and piccoloist Andrew Burden offered supple complementary support. The “Bacchanal,” by turns spirited and impish in the full ensemble, brought the performance to a resounding conclusion.

The solo spotlight fell upon violinist Ella J. Kim, winner of this year’s NEP Young Artists Competition. The 16-year-old violinist exhibited sparkling technique and a mature sense of phrasing in Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, her vehicle for the afternoon.

With verve and precision, Kim maneuvered the introduction’s sudden shifts of mood. The Rondo, shaped with subtle rubato, took on apt Spanish swagger. Her final flourishes brought a radiant intensity matched by Boyles’s robust accompaniment.

The audience awarded Kim, who undoubtedly, has a promising future, with enthusiastic applause.

Guest conductor Nicholas DeMaison leads the New England Philharmonic in music by Zwilich, Holland, Tsontakis, and Sibelius 8 p.m. February 26 at the Tsai Performance Center.

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