A serendipitous trip to the symphony

First, the story.

I was on my way to a Chanukah brunch when a friend texted me: “Jewelry party at 1, symphony at 3? Be my date?” I had wanted to go to the New Haven Symphony Orchestra’s concert last Thursday, but that didn’t happen, so I was glad for the opportunity to go yesterday. (A jewelry party is not my thing, and besides, I had latkes to eat.)

It turned out that my friends’ brunch and her jewelry party were in the same neighborhood. Excellent coincidence. Then she gave me the address where she would be. It was on the same tiny street as my friends’ house. Serendipity!

So at 2:30, we both said our goodbyes, headed outside, met up at her car, and made our way to Shelton for the concert.

Second, the concert.

The New Haven Symphony sounds great. They have some brief moments of sounding scattered, but even in the auditorium at Shelton Intermediate School, their energy and musicality come through. They seem to care a lot more than they used to.

It pains me to say this, but I don’t have a whole lot of good things to say about the one contemporary piece on the concert. Usually I’m all about new music. I want more people to hear it, to play it, to talk about it, to give it a chance. But in this concert, Mozart and Mendelssohn won out.

Augusta Read Thomas is one of two composers in residence with the New Haven Symphony. Her piece Daylight Divine, from 2001, is for orchestra with a soprano soloist and children’s choir. It’s dissonant but not aggressive. It’s got some interesting effects from collective cascades.

The main problem, I thought, is that it sounds generic. The sonorities, ranging from bare open fifths to pungent clashes, aren’t anything new. It’s got the requisite angular trumpet lines. Sometimes it meanders, sometimes it drives forward. It aims for the heights but ends up sounding shrill.

The piece’s other problem is its texts. Not the quality of the poems – they’re by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who knew how to write – but their suitability for setting to this kind of music. “Glory be to God for dappled things”: a paean to the natural world. But when sung by a children’s choir, the exultant text becomes precious. The dissonance fights that sentimentality and redeems it somewhat, but when the text is so serious, it doesn’t work when the music is in opposition to it. Yet when the music is more consonant, its just sounds unoriginal.

Also, she definitely wrote the percussion part before cell phones became ubiquitous: one tremolo sounded exactly like a cell phone ring. I don’t think I was the only one looking around the hall for a confused moment.

The choir was very well-drilled; they learned a tricky score and sounded quite good. I realized, though, why we were always required to wear our hair back in the choirs I was in. It was pretty distracting to see so much hair falling in kids’ faces and over their shoulders.

Anyway. Enough of that. I’m glad to have heard the piece, but I just wasn’t impressed by it.

Ani Kavafian, the NHSO’s concertmaster, has been making her way through the Mozart violin concertos with the orchestra. Yesterday she played the Concerto No. 5 in A major, known as the “Turkish” concerto. (K. 219, written in 1775, if that’s important to you.)

Kavafian is such a delight to hear and watch. From the first notes, her clear tone and fierce focus came through. She enjoys every moment, and she interacts with the whole orchestra – not just the conductor but the players – in a way that shows how thoroughly she knows the piece.

Music director William Boughton a performance full of light and space, with delicious drama in the A minor “Turkish” section. With gracefully shaped phrases and crisp articulations, the orchestra sounded great. I think this is the only time I’ve heard spontaneous (if bashful) applause after the slow movement of a piece. But it was so exquisite, how could people hold back?

After intermission came Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, nicknamed “Scottish” (written 1842). The orchestra fully explored the piece’s dark, somber beauty, turning on a dime from mood to mood. I just sat back and enjoyed the tight performance: the long, aching lines and fiery energy, the way that motives have of bubbling up, the gorgeous wind solos (especially the flute and clarinet).

And there’s something so perfect about hearing the Scottish symphony and then bundling up to head into a crisp, cold evening under a sky still dark blue after sunset.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A serendipitous trip to the symphony

  1. And then when you consider that Hopkins’ sprung rhythm and textual sonorities are so loud, so _there_, you wonder why composers set his words to music at all. There’s something about his poems that inspires the urge toward more… I understand this, and I still think maybe someday there will be the perfect Hopkins setting.

    I wonder if your reaction was in part prompted by the very un-generic-ness of Hopkins’ style; given a different text, the same music might have sounded a little fresher, maybe? Anyway, I liked reading this post!

  2. Actually, I think Hopkins’ poems are complete in themselves, and that’s why they actually tend to lose something when set to music. Perhaps it’s that very completeness that people find so inspiring they just want to add more – and which doom those settings to fail to reach the level of the text itself.

    The music might have suited a more abrasive text, perhaps prose or free verse. But the part of the piece that worked best for me was the instrumental interlude between the two primary sections. I think that’s telling.

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