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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, his fellow 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.

Harrowing Relevance and Conversational Charm from the Chelsea Symphony

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.

Vast, Turbulent, Troubled Oceans of Sound From the Chelsea Symphony

The Chelsea Symphony’s performance in the vast downstairs oceanically-themed space at the American Museum of Natural History on the 22nd of this month might well turn out to have been this year’s most epic, intense, mightily enveloping concert. It’s hard to think of a program more toweringly and often fearsomely majestic – and relevant – than the world premiere of Michael Boyman’s The Howling Wilderness, Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales and John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean. To witness all that under deep-sea light beneath the museum’s famous fullsize facsimile of a blue whale really drove the show’s theme home. Much as the world’s oceans can take our breath away – literally and figuratively – they’re imperiled like never before in history.

Conductor Matthew Aubin didn’t bother trying to conceal how much fun he was having – or how closely he related to the music – during the program’s first half. The Chelsea Symphony are New York’s orchestral home to rising star composer-performers, and typically introduce at least one premiere at every concert. Boyman’s composition turned out to be a masterwork, Rimsky-Korsakovian in its use of every inch of the sonic register, from stygian lows to cirrus-cloud highs, something akin to a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock film score underwater. Boyman is a violist, so the menacing, rustling strings and macabre tritone cadenzas from the high strings came as no surprise. Mighty deep brass, basses and cellos, and harrowing hailstorms from the timpani anchored this dynamically rich depiction of a world in peril, an apt choice for Earth Day 2018.

The ensemble followed with an impressively seamless performance of Hovhaness’ electroacoustic work, featuring samples of actual whale song timed to the split-second to coincide with the music. From its brassy depiction of undersea mountain ranges to its mighty swoops and dives, It’s hardly an easy piece to play. But the orchestra had really pulled out all the stops, with a grand total of four rehearsals. The whole crew seemed to relish its proportions, yet with close attention to the elegance of the Asian-tinged, pentatonic melodies that Hovhaness became so obsessed with during his later years.

Led by conductor Mark Seto, the orchestra’s take of Adams’ gargantuan work – which the composer introduced with a brooding, ecologically-themed poem – was a revelation. Given the size of the space and its rich natural reverb, were the orchestra going to take it into Titanic territory? Hardly. It’s impossible to imagine a group interpreting the most epic tone poem ever written with more clarity and vividness. Every clever echo effect, subtle metric shift and handoff of one looping phrase from one section of the orchestra to another – spread out in three separate configurations – had a focus so striking that that the overall lush, enveloping ambience seemed almost an afterthought: it just lingered while the soloists dug in and concentrated. Which they had to. Imagine playing the same pedal note or riff over and over again, with the exact same timbre and volume, for minutes on end – your fingers cramp, your carpal tunnel sounds the alarm! Yet there was no flinching.

Beyond mere attention to detail, Seto’s choice to begin the work at barely more than a whisper paid magnificent dividends when the percussion finally rose from the depths to launch a tsunami of a wave about four-fifths of the way through. Likewise, the long descent from shoreline-crushing turbulence to panoramic calm was just as spellbinding.

The Chelsea Symphony’s next concerts are on June 1 and 2 at 8:30 and then 7:30 PM, respectively, featuring works by Samuel Beebe, Jonathan Bruce Brown, and Respighi’s Pines of Rome, at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St. The Friday concert features soloist Susanne Chen on the Victor Bruns Contrabassoon Concerto. the Saturday bill switches that out for Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto featuring soloist Emanouil Manolov.

Two Brilliant World Premieres and a Masterful Interpretation of a Classic from the Chelsea Symphony

That the Chelsea Symphony’s Powerglide tour of the iconic vistas in Dvorak’s New World Symphony Friday night was upstaged by two world premieres speaks to both the quality of those works as well as the orchestra’s commitment to establishing them in the symphonic repertoire. With meticulous attention to detail, conductor Miguel Campos Neto first led the group through Danny Gray’s Summer Mountains, the winning piece from this season’s Chelsea Symphony composition competition.

Although inspired by eleventh century Chinese landscape portraiture, there’s nothing Asian about it: Gray could just as easily have called it Appalachian Spring. As the work built from distant but purposeful impressionism to awestruck brass riffs, it came across as something akin to Copland but without the fussiness. That, and Dvorak.

As it went on, a couple of dreamy, lustrous interludes referenced the night’s most famous work; otherwise, Gray utilized just about every available instrument, section of the orchestra and tonality. It’s a colorful, programmatic piece. A playfully brief interlude from the percussion section, and then towering heights fueled by brass and wind soloists were balanced with a couple of mystical idylls  and a surprise nocturne of an outro. Throughout the piece, solos were crystalline and distinct; the same was true of the work’s counterpoint and textural contrasts. The was one muddy moment where a flurry of percussion drowned out the strings, but that wouldn’t have been an issue in a larger venue.

Soloist Sarah Haines’ role in premiering Michael Boyman’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra had its virtuoso passages, most striking in a coldly enigmatic, slithery chromatic riff and variations. Yet more often than not, she served as anchor while a succession of dark, often Shostakovian melodies rose and fell around her. Boyman is also a violist, which made perfect sense in context. Cumulo-nimbus low brass loomed large against the litheness of the viola, strings and winds, a brooding, recurrent trope. A rather cynical, dancing scherzo gave way to a boisterous neoromantic crescendo and mighty upward swirl in the coda, a succession of nocturnal motives that again referenced Dvorak at his most lustrous. This moody, mighty suite very vividly reflects our current state of unease: it would resonate powerfully with a global audience.

The orchestra’s silkiness in the most low-key passages of Dvorak’s most famous piece gave Campos Neto a high ceiling for some absolutely bellicose heroic melodies along with wary calls across the plains from sentries and scouts. Chariots swung low and hard and Old Man River was foreshadowed mightily from the current, amid homey familiarity. This performance more than did justice to the ongoing New World Initiative instigated by the NY Philharmonic, an apt choice of a piece to be programmed at venues across this city in an era when the descendants of the African-Americans whose melodies Dvorak appropriated are facing perils that for awhile we thought we’d left behind in another century.

For eleven years now, the Chelsea Symphony have been introducing important, relevant new works while lending their signature flair to standard repertoire. Their next concerts are Friday, April 21 at 8:30 PM and then Saturday, April 22 at 7:30 at St. Paul’s German Church, 315 W 22nd St. off of 8th Ave. featuring an Aaron Dai world premiere plus music of Bach, Stravinsky, Carl Busch, Samuel Magrill and Henri Vieuxtemps. Suggested donation is $20.

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

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.