CONCERT REVIEW Journey Through a Mythological Forest

A Night With the New England Philharmonic

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Music Director Richard Pittman conducts the New England Philharmonic orchestra as it performs in Kresge Auditorium on Saturday, Oct. 27.
Sherry Yan—The Tech

New England Philharmonic

Directed by Richard Pittman

Kresge Auditorium

Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007

Leave it to the New England Philharmonic and its director, Richard Pittman, to come up with a bold program. Living up to the adventurous reputation that has repeatedly earned them awards and accolades in the recent past, they prepared a unique program for their Oct. 27 program held in Kresge Auditorium at MIT.

The program opened with Tapiola, believed to be the last orchestral work by Sibelius. An heir of the landscaping tradition of Fingal’s Cave, Sibelius’ tonal poem describes the forest of Tapio, home of the Finnish forest god in mythology, through music and emotion. Using recurring themes, exemplified in the mellow section of strings at the beginning of the piece, Sibelius transfused his score with a vision of discovery, awe, and contemplation of the ancient trees and lively inhabitants of the forest.

A very original work, in the unmistakable style of Sibelius (reminiscent of his Valse Triste at times), the poem contains subtle hints of Rimsky-Korsakov in the exquisite, playful orchestration. While walking through the musical woods conjured by Sibelius, I could not help but think that recordings can seldom capture the richness and depth of a life performance. The audience recognized Pittman’s sophisticated understanding of the spirit behind Sibelius’ vision of this mythological kingdom with a heartfelt round of applause.

The triumph of the night, however, was Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Travelling Journeyman). The pieces in this song cycle, Mahler’s first, have a common theme: the pains of a broken heart, widely believed to be inspired by a lost love of the composer himself.

During the performance, Pittman requested that the lights of the auditorium be made more bright so that the audience could follow the original German text — or the accompanying English translation — of the four poems. David Kravitz’s clean, warm voice proved capable of endowing Mahler’s alter-ego with the full spectrum of emotions required for the four movements: a deeply melancholy tone in the first lied or song; a powerful freshness in the more joyous, hopeful second lied; a darker, more tragic third lied; and the tearful, heart-broken final lied. The two middle lieder were the most convincing, due to the immaculate union of director, orchestra, and baritone as a single musical entity. Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld, with its adoration of Nature, a clear tribute of Mahler to Beethoven’s Pastorale in the way it evokes scenes from the countryside, is a true jewel. The sharply contrasting, quite Wagnerian Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer gave Kravitz a chance to show his powerful voice.

After an intermission, the audience was treated to a premiere performance of Cryptic Circle, a symphonic piece by Carl Christian Bettendorf. Born in 1973 in Germany, Bettendorf currently studies composition at Columbia University. Cryptic Circle was co-winner in the 2007–2008 “Call for Scores” from a pool of around 120 submissions. The piece captures the composer’s impressions while visiting a Stonehenge-like megalithic complex, “The Ring of Brodgar,” off the coast of Scotland. In Pittman’s words, the opening fanfare reverberates throughout the piece, describing a circular theme similar to the monument, and after a number of extended sections in one pitch, ends in a stormy climax.

The work, heavy on the sudden, sharp use of brass and percussion, displays the typical dissonance, and the uncertain, shy interventions of strings so characteristic of post-Stravinsky works. Noteworthy was the innovative use of a piano, where the performer would pull the strings directly from the harp inside the piano box. Interestingly, silence was also a color in Bettendorf’s palette. Cryptic Circle is contemporary in the sense that, having come after classical composers had already described human dreams, it is left to describe only our nightmares and fears. After the paroxysmal finale, the young composer, who had been sitting unassumingly among the audience, humbly approached the scenario to receive the warm applause of those present.

Director Pittman closed the night with a work by MIT’s very own John H. Harbison, the Pulitzer Prize winner composer trained at Harvard and Princeton, who currently holds a professorship at the Institute. Harbison, who is currently working on his Fifth Symphony, was absent against his will, due to an unforeseen commitment with PBS.

Instead of selecting some of Harbison’s better known and safer works, such as his chamber pieces, Pittman presented us with his Symphony No. 1; a bold choice given that first symphonies are seldom transcendental, with few glorious exceptions such as Brahms’ works. The symphony has an interesting structure: it starts with a dissonant fanfare, a woodwind chorale, and a romantic melody in the first movement, followed — as Pittman puts it — by what is possibly the shortest scherzo of any symphony in the very Mendelssohnian second movement, a third dominated by a quartet of low instruments, and a jazzy, distinctly American final movement. I listened carefully to the procession of very deep, smooth sections — where winds lead the melody over a canvas of strings ensemble — and the contrasting, strident attacks of the full orchestra. The brief, adagio parts are among the best of the symphony, while the furious orchestration of the fourth movement, reminiscent of Copland, felt a little too amorphous, especially towards the brutal, aggressive finale.

If music reflects the soul of the composer, and at least in part the zeitgeist surrounding him, then Saturday’s program of the New England Philharmonic Orchestra made a point out of how times have changed. The contrast between the more melodic first half of the program and the second, ultra-modern half, is dramatic. Pittman’s grasp of Bettendorf and Harbison accurately communicates the anguish and the absurd that characterize our times through pieces that were clearly not written for the lovers of pre-Ravel music. Their purpose, it seems, is not to move the heart, but to shock it into reason; not to entertain the mind, but to warn it of reality, a reality of fear, struggles and agony over power.