New York Music Daily

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Tag: Reuben Blundell

The Chelsea Symphony Celebrate Audacity in the Face of Terror

The New York Philharmonic’s newfound dedication to socially aware programming is a welcome development, but among New York orchestras, the Chelsea Symphony got there first. This year their entire season has been devoted to music celebrating freedom fighters and the struggle against fascism. The coda of Saturday night’s program, Shostakovich’s audaciously transgressive Symphony No. 5, was arguably the most deliciously redemptive piece they’ve played in the last several months, at least from this perspective.

It was a loud yet remarkably distinct performance. It often makes perfect sense for an orchestra to play the lulls close to the vest, in order to max out the dynamics, but conductor Reuben Blundell did the opposite, right from the somber opening riffs, a paraphrase nicked from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The effect was the same: gloom and doom, in your face, and the rest of the symphony was as impossible to turn away from.

One by one, the ensemble absolutely nailed many of the composer’s future signature tropes: a creepy, satirical danse macabre, buffoonish phony pageantry, cynically strutting militarism and the terror and soul-depletion all those things create. In moments of guarded hope, the brass section, in particular, distinguished thesmelves with their lustrous clarity. Solos throughout the performance – notably from Michael Dwinell’s oboe, Sarah Abrams’ flute, Hannah Murphy’s harp and Tyler Hefferon’s timpani – had guided-missile precision.

The piece was an enormous gamble for the composer. In 1937, Stalin’s secret police were rounding up and murdering his friends; meanwhile, he was under fire from the censors for drifting too close to the Second Viennese School, i.e. ‘western” sounds, notwithstanding that so many of the leading figures in that movement were also Slavic. Shostakovich’s response was this wickedly catchy, emotionally panoramic, occasionally harrowing masterpiece.

Notwithstanding all its drama and hope against hope, the one section that might have been the group’s greatest triumph could have been the surreal, atmospheric interlude in the third movement, one which often gets away from other orchestras. Blundell seemed to offer contrasting hope with the robustness of the conclusion, which others often leave much more unsettled.

One thing that did get away from the orchestra was beyond anyone’s control. The DiMenna Center’s air conditioning kicked in hard and sent the string sections’ tuning awry as Nell Flanders led the ensemble matter-of-factly through Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A Minor. Soloist Bryn Digney played it from memory. She knew what she was doing, but stringed instruments tend not to adjust well to unexpectedly cold air on a warm night.

Fortunately, that wasn’t a factor in the beginning and end of the concert, which the group kicked off with minute attention to sudden stylistic shifts throughout Courtney Bryan‘s Sanctum. A portrait of the attempt to stake out solid ground amid relentless police brutality and attacks on black Americans, it requires split-second timing to sync up with a backing track including field recordings  from the Fereguson, Missouri protests. But the Symphony were up to the task of elevating stark bluesiness out of the murk – and vice versa.

The Chelsea Symphony conclude their season on June 29 at 8 PM, repeating on the 30th at 2 at the DiMenna Center with a performance of Cofigliano’s Symphony No. 1 plus the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor with soloist Adam von Housen.  For Sunday’s performance, they switch out Mendelssohn for Beethoven’s violin cnncerto in that same key.. Suggested donation of $20 is about half what the Philharmonic is charging for the Corigliano ealier next month. It will be interesting to compare the two.

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.

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.