An Obscure Treasure, a Vivid Premiere and a Pair of Haunters from the Chelsea Symphony

by delarue

The New York Philharmonic may get more press than the other orchestras in town, and a lot of that is deserved. But many of those other orchestras are doing great things as well. The Greenwich Village Orchestra plays tremendous theme programs, are family-friendly and don’t shy away from relevant issues beyond the music. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony have a towering Philadelphia Orchestra-like presence and sweep. The Queensboro Symphony are drawing musicians out to the middle of nowhere in Flushing because everybody wants to play for their conductor. And it’s hard to believe that the Chelsea Symphony are only ten years old; they’ve become an institution on the West Side. They distinguish themselves with their consistent support of new music, constantly premiering one thing or another. They also have a fondness for theatrics, a sense of humor that goes with that, and a penchant for very distinct, articulate playing. You don’t go to the Chelsea Symphony to get lost in a haze of sound: you go for the excitement of hearing an assembly of clear, individual voices working together.

Friday night’s program was typical. They opened with the world premiere of Hope for Two Voices and Orchestra, by their first-chair bassist Tim Kiah, who’s been more or less a composer in residence for the last few years. Beginning as a lustrous, more or less horizontal tone poem, soprano Emily Eagen and her baritone counterpart joined the ensemble in taking it almost imperceptibly to warmer, more Romantic territory, bringing the title to life. Obviously a reflection on current events, it resonated strongly.

Overcast low-midrange sonics lingered and soared throughout an equally vivid performance of Max Bruch’s famous Kol Nidre variations. Based on somber medieval Jewish themes, cellist Susan Mandel evoked a wounded, almost-imploring, cantabile quality above the strings’ grey-sky ambience.

That the next piece on the bill would upstage a genuinely picturesque performance of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition speaks to the orchestra’s sense of adventure. Conductor Matt Aubin explained that mid-20th century composer Fernande Breilh-Decruck lived a block away in the London Towers complex with her husband, who played with the Philharmonic. Her Sonata in C# Minor for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, with Rob Wilkerson in the role of dynamic soloist, turned out to be parade-ready. Part blustery late Romanticism replete with all sorts of innovative voicings and playful yet purposeful, Nielsenesque orchestration, part jauntily bustling, cinematic theme and variations, it foreshadowed Leonard Bernstein. Was Bernstein aware or, or influenced by the composer? Hearing this music, you have to wonder. Why is she not better known?

Reuben Blundell took over the podium for Moussorgsky’s venerable blockbuster, reveling in its Ravel arrangement. To early 21st century ears, it evokes dozens of old horror films and dramas as much as it does the composer’s friend’s eerie tableaux of tormented gnomes, menacing witches, ghostly catacombs, and a concluding megalith that brings to mind a giant prison door rather than the gateway to a bustling metropolis. It’s easy to find cartoonish ideas in this music, but, true to form, the orchestra parsed it for portraiture and restless angst. Standout soloists included but were not limited to horn player Adam Schommer, oboeist Phil Rashkin, tuba player Ben Stapp and the entire high string section, who when required – and this happened a lot – were seamless to the point of being a single voice.

The Chelsea Symphony’s next performance is their family concert on February 21 at the Brooklyn Music School, 126 St Felix St in the Atlantic Yards area (any train to Atlantic Ave; the closest is actually the G at Fulton), repeating on February 27 at the orchestra’s usual stomping ground, St. Paul’s German Church at 315 W 22nd St. in Chelsea with a program including Peter & the Wolf, Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals and a Seth Bedford world premiere for kids. Both start at 2 PM; suggested donation is $20.