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.