Harrowing Relevance and Conversational Charm from the Chelsea Symphony

by delarue

Is there any orchestra in New York, the Philharmonic included, who have commissioned as many important, relevant new works as the Chelsea Symphony? Saturday night on their home turf on the west side, they debuted yet another impactful piece alongside a sinuously choreographed crowd-pleaser and a mighty favorite from the standard repertoire.

That the world premiere of Aaron Dai’s Four Miniatures for a Dark Age would threaten to upstage Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 speaks as much to the power of Dai’s suite as to the orchestra’s commitment to it. Shostakovich’s fingerprints were all over the music: macabre tritones and sudden bursts of eerie chromatics leapt out from every corner of the orchestra. There were also more than hints of sarcastic faux pageantry – a twisted variation on Hail to the Chief, front and center – and frequent descents to Bernard Herrmann-esque Hitchcock film territory. Cadenzas were fleeting, seldom more than a bar long, requiring instantaneous focus which the ensemble delivered over and over. As is, the suite deserves widespread programming; if Dai could expand each of the themes and make a symphony out of them, that would really be something to look forward to.

Soloist Sarah Koop McCoy got more than one standing ovation for her performance of Carl Nielsen’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. With rich, woody lows, keening highs and slinky midrange, she maintained a constant intensity as conductor Matthew Aubin brought all hands on deck and kept them there. Nielsen’s music is so much fun to conduct, and play, because he keeps his ideas constantly shifting from one part of the orchestra to another. Aubin’s long association with this group shone throughout a warm, conversational rapport, notwithstanding the music’s persistent unease: Nielsen’s late-career, tentative flirtation with the Second Viennese School. Yet not everything here defied resolution – there was a nod in a samba direction, a dixieland detour, and finally one of the funniest fugues in the repertoire, played solo by McCoy with deadpan flair.

Aubin ceded the podium to Nell Flanders for Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. The orchestra began almost tentatively, then got loud fast and careened forward from there. But if there’s any well-known symphony that an ensemble can do that with, it’s this one. On one hand, the composer’s vast interweave of one catchy riff after another never reached the point where it felt particularly contiguous, and the orchestra seemed rather rudderless. On the other, this was an opportunity to get to know parts of the score that easily get subsumed in epic grandeur. So maybe that’s six of one, half a dozen of another.

And those solos, bursting from every dusky nook at St. Paul’s Church on West 22nd Street, were consistently bright and briskly executed, from basses to brass. Over the decades, parts of the symphony have been used in scores of movies and NPR themes, emerging triumphantly here to remind everyone what their provenance was.

The Chelsea Symphony’s current season is dedicated to socially relevant works: it seems they’re finally making it official now after years of advocacy for important causes. Their next concerts are March 8 and 9 at 8 PM with a fascinating program beginning with the world premiere of bassist Tim Kiah‘s Fascist Baby; a second world premiere by Benjamin Louis Brody; the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major; a rare suite by 20th century composer Fernande Breilh-Decruck (a neglected figure this orchestra have rescued from obscurity), and Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. The Saturday night show switches Haydn concertos, substituting one for cello. Both shows are at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St.; suggested donation is $20.