Saturday, June 03, 2006

Newton Community Chorus - Richard Travers, Music Director. June 3, 2006.

Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Newton, MA

Lesley Chen, Concertmaster; Megan Workman, Soprano; Shannon Wicks, Countertenor; John William Gomez, Tenor; Michael D. Andrako, Baritone.

Mass in Time of War (Paukenmesse) in C major (1796) by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).

We came up to Boston to listen to the chorus of which Ellie is a member. Tonight we were seated in the front, on the right hand side of the church.

The Mass is known for its extensive use of the timpani (2 drums, C and G, I assume) which many felt Haydn used to denote cannons being fired. The mass was written during a time of war between Austria and France, in which Austria was ultimately defeated.

My last review of the chorus, when they sang Handel's Messiah in December 2005, largely took note of their amateur status. Perhaps I should look at tonight's performance in the same spirit. My overall impression is that the level of performance was generally higher this time around.

In general, the soloists were not as good as those in the last concert - and they were not great then. They are all voice students at the Boston Conservatory of Music, with three of them being students of one Victor Jannett. None of the voices sounded particular mature, hopefully they will improve with experience. The soprano rushed at the beginning and sang the high notes in Kyrie eleison as if she was out of breath, or couldn't wait to move off them. She did improve as the Mass progressed and was much better at the end. The countertenor's voice was a bit weak. Many in the audience were taken aback by a man singing a traditional alto role using a falsetto voice. The tenor and bass/bartione put in adequate but not spectacular performances. The bass was a bit weak in the low registers.

I actually thought the chorus did quite a bit better than December. The balance between the voices was much better, and I think this piece is musically more challenging than Messiah. There were inevitable miscues and imprecisions, and periods of chaos would creep in, but they didn't detract from the overall performance. Ellie thought they messed up in only one place.

The conductor did a good job, and most of his cues seemed timely, albeit not inspiring. The orchestra members played gallantly, but the orchestra was drowned out often due to its small size. There was a nice cello solo passage, though. The two trumpets were solid. The timpani player was quite good, but could play with more conviction during some of the more prominent passages. She didn't bring out the gloom and doom that should run in the background.

Frankly I had never encountered this piece until Ellie told me about it. I have since listened to a recording of it several times and find it enjoyable. Tonight's performance, played and sung by a group of (mostly) amateur musicians, was also quite satisfying.

This is probably Ellie's last performance with the chorus as she plans to leave the Boston area sometime during the summer. Let's hope she finds an appropriate group to join after she moves! (Not that I am being mysterious, she isn't sure where she'll end up yet.)

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; Cynthia Phelps, Viola. May 27, 2006

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center, Seat BB10.

Harold in Italy, Symphony in Four Parts for Orchestra with Solo Viola, after Byron, Op. 16 (1834) by Hector Berlioz (1803-69).
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888; rev. 1890-1906) by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911).

The “Paganini of the Viola” turns out to be Paganini himself. He asked Berlioz to write a work to be played on the famous virtuoso’s newly acquired Stradivarious viola. Although Berlioz reworked the piece per Paganini’s suggestion, Paganini opted out of the premiere. It is easy to see why.

The first movement (I. Harold in the mountains. Scenes of melancholy, happiness, and joy. Adagio – Allegro ma non tanto) began with an introduction by the low strings. The viola came in mainly as a duet with the harp, with the orchestra in the background. The viola had a nice sound, but was easily, and often, overwhelmed by the orchestra. The movement did convey the stated emotions, although the coda seemed more ominous than melancholic. The second movement (II. Procession of pilgrims chanting the evening prayer. Allegretto) saw the viola go into a different theme after a short orchestral introduction. The flying arpeggios with the theme in the background conveyed a prayer-like atmosphere. The third movement (III. Serenade of an Abruzzi highlander to his mistress. Allegro assai- Allegretto) first sounded like Scottish highland music. It also contained nice melodies by the bassoon and the clarinet. The last movement (IV. Brigands’ orgy. Recollections of preceding scenes. Allegro frenetico) was the most interesting of all, although I didn’t catch the repeated themes.

The solo viola was supposed to be a narrator. The nature of the instrument is that its sound tends not to carry well. The red dress Phelps wore drew attention to her, but her playing didn’t have the flair of a soloist in a give-and-take situation with the orchestra, so I couldn’t help thinking “incongruent.” Now if she wore a regular black dress and stood to the side … I’m not sure that would have worked either. Perhaps Paganini was right in rejecting the piece, although when he heard it four years after the premiere he was very impressed with it. To me the music wandered quite a bit, even though that’s the theme of the symphony.

I was surprised to find Mahler first symphony in tonight’s program. The orchestra played it earlier in the season (September 2005), and I had written a review of it. I enjoyed hearing it for the second time though. This symphony contained many folksy tunes, including the famous “Frere Jacques” in the third movement. The repeated motifs juxtaposed with constant changing sceneries made for very interesting listening. Brass instruments play important roles in Mahler’s symphonies, this one was no exception. At the beginning several trumpets were playing off-stage; at the end all the French horns stood up. My reaction to this performance is by and large the same as for the last one. One major difference: this time around the orchestra always seemed to be in control.

To sum up, I was lost in Harold’s wanderings, and was a bit disappointed that part of the program was a rerun. The Orchestra’s repertoire can’t be that limited.