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 Corigliano’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.