New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Transcendent, Troubled, Richly Relevant Sounds with the Chelsea Symphony Saturday Night

Saturday night the Chelsea Symphony – New York’s most intimate orchestral experience – left the audience spellbound with a program that was a fearlessly relevant as it was stylistically vast.

The coda was a poignant, kinetically evocative version of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin that was more dynamic than a famous recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony, and had more slink and dark ripple than another by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of Pierre Boulez. With a calm meticulousness on the podium, the Chelsea Symphony’s Matthew Aubin brought the war veteran composer’s angst-ridden, distantly Andalucian-influenced WWI-era shout-out to people and an era gone forever into sharp, envelopingly wistful focus. Solos throughout were strikingly direct, especially Jason Smoller’s long, plaintive passage, horn player Emily Wong voicing reason through battlefield smoke a little later. 

There isn’t enough room in the New York Philharmonic for all the great musicians in New York: the Chelsea Symphony is one of the places where they can be found. What differentiates the Chelsea ensemble is that since their season is shorter, they have more time for rehearsals – a grand total of five for this particular bill – and this year, the orchestra have dedicated themselves to socially aware programming. No art for art’s sake this year: it’s all about keeping the music grounded in reality.

Chelsea Symphony bassist and composer Tim Kiah introduced the world premiere of his suite Fascist Baby, contemplating how we can keep our children from going over to the dark side. By implication, certainly, no child is born a fascist: the title is a question rather than an epithet. Kiah’s answer to that question, he said, would be to scare that kid a little, but also to offer hope, precisely what his suite accomplished. From a massed scream in the introduction, through calmer, more bittersweet passages utilizing the entire sonic spectrum a la Gil Evanas, to stabbing, Shostakovian horror and then backing away, solace seemed to trump menace.Conductor Reuben Blundell seemed as swept up in the suspense as to how it would turn out as everybody else was.

He also conducted the night’s second piece, Haydn’s First Cello Concerto, with soloist Erich Schoen-Rene. For those who might have preferred sedate, civilized Haydn, this was not the answer, but for those who wanted to revel in the composer’s irrepressible humor, playful jousting and “gotcha” phrases, this was a real romp. It was also the only point during the evening when there were any issues: in this case, tuning, probably weather-related. St. Paul’s Church on 22nd St. is a charming place to see an orchestra, but drafty 19th century buildings can be challenging for string sections when it’s cold outside.

The night’s centerpiece was what may have been the American premiere of Fernande Decruck’s 5 Poems for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra. The Chelsea Symphony have singlehandedly springboarded a revival of the mid-20th composer’s symphonic work, and Aubin has become the world’s leading Decruck scholar. He’s right in calling her extraordinary: one of the few women composers whose work was frequently played throughout Europe in the 1940s, her career was tragically cut short.

In a stroke of synchronicity, both the original 1944 version of this piece as well as the Ravel had been premiered by the same French ensemble, the Ochestre Colonne. Additionally, Decruck and her multi-instrumentalist husband, who played in the New York Philharmonic, lived in the London Terrace apartments in Chelsea, just a few blocks away, during the 1930s.

Introducing the piece, Aubin mentioned a possible political subtext: although the suite derives from liturgical themes, religion barely factors into Decruck’s oeuvre. Rather, the five sections came across as more of a harrowing, relentlessly elegaic commentary on the horrors of war, and as much of a condemnation of those who collaborated with the enemy. Soprano Kate Maroney kept those dynamics front and center, finally rising to an accusatory peak over an insistently somber backdrop. The bass section in particular stood out here, both in the stern first part and later in a surreal, hypnotically brooding one-chord bolero of sorts. Both years ahead of its time and timeless, there’s never been a better moment for this music to be resurgent. If this was recorded, the Chelsea Symphony ought to release it.

The Chelsea Symphony’s next concerts are May 18 at 8 PM, repeating on the 19th at 2 at the DiMenna Center, featuring Shostakovich’s harrowing Symphony No. 5 as well as works by Dvorak, Courtney Bryan and Eric Ewazen. Suggested donation is $20.

Shimmering and Shattering Mozart This Week From the New York Philharmonic

Last night the New York Philharmonic went from a whisper to a scream in a performance of two iconic Mozart works that even by this orchestra’s standards were revelatory. The Philharmonic are pairing the Requiem with Mozart’s final piano concerto, No. 27 in B Flat, featuring soloist Richard Goode tomorrow night, March 15 at 8 PM, as well as March 16 at 8 and March 19 at 7:30 PM. If you’ve never seen these pieces before, go – this is a rare chance to get a foundational understanding. If you have, these performances may reorient you, profoundly.

This was not a particularly loud Requiem. Notwithstanding that harrowing jolt where Mozart realizes that things are not going to end well – “Rex! Rex!” the choir implores – and that several later passages are as grand as guignol gets, the orchestra didn’t play them that way. In the early going, conductor Manfred Honeck put his hand to his ear, an admonition to remain hushed, and both the orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir standing against the back wall stayed as sotto-voce and dead serious as they possibly could have been. Many ensembles can’t resist the temptation to make Halloween out of it, but this Requiem fulfilled its function as elegy and also as liturgical music, true to the commission Mozart accepted. Employing his motet Ave Verum Corpus as a solemn summation to this uncompleted version was a respectful acknowledgment that we’ll never know how the composer wanted it to end.

As David Bernard has astutely observed, eighty percent of the Requiem is either repetition or Mozart understudy Franz Sussmayr. How do you save repetition from being redundant? Change the dynamics. What a difference Honeck’s choice made when the introductory theme came around again, this time closer to pine box than velvet. Contrasts between mens’ and women’s voices were striking and distinct, other than in the two bewildering series of quasi-operatic, Handelian eighth note volleys that are so out of place that one assumes it was Sussmayr, not Mozart, who came up with them.

Among the four vocal soloists, soprano Joelle Harvey’s forceful delivery was particularly impactful, as was mezzo-soprano Megan Mikhailovna Samarin’s more understated, moody approach, in her Philharmonic debut. Tenor Ben Bliss and bass Matthew Rose exchanged roles as voices of doom and hope against hope. Snippets of somber Mozart Masonic funeral music made an apt introduction and brought everything full circle.

Much as the Requiem was played through a stained glass window, darkly, the Piano Concerto sparkled with coy humor. Goode’s floating articulacy on the keys, through jaunty, fleeting crescendos, jeweled cascades and some jousting with the orchestra, was unselfconsciously joyous. Likewise, the orchestra were seamless unless a particular moment called for some goofy peek-a-boo from an individual voice – Mozart uses the flute a lot for that. There were a few slight transitory glitches early on, but things like that typically get ironed out after opening night.