There was a time, not that many years ago, when if the New Haven Symphony Orchestra wanted to play a new work by a living composer, the music director had to sneak it onto the program, buttressed by the a slew of “greatest hits” stuff from well-known dead white guys like Bach and Beethoven.
A concert such as Thursday nights’s simply wouldn’t have happened at the symphony 20 years ago. New composers were left to Yale, which could survive if it lost a couple of audience members due to more challenging works.
Not only is new work now more commonplace at the NHSO (under the generous baton of William Boughton). It’s an unabashed big deal. Not only did the Feb. 27 show feature a world premiere of Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas’ saxophone symphony “Prisms of Light,” but all but two of the other other selections were composed by Thomas. Making it even more of a celebration, the composer marked her 50th birthday that week.
The whole evening was a loving tribute to music education. Thomas (pictured above) once taught at Northwestern University. So, until very recently, did Frederick Hemke, a saxophonist of such international stature that there’s a brand of double-reeds named for him.
When Hemke retired from teaching, a bunch of his students chose to honor him by commissioning a new orchestral work with a kick-ass saxophone solo. Thomas won the commission, and the four-movement tour-de-force she devised proved so irresistible to Hemke that he insisted on performing it himself at its premiere. Maestro Boughton, who knew Thomas from when she served as NHSO composer in residence a few years back, got wind of the new work and arranged for his orchestra to host the premiere. When it was discovered that the Elm City Girls Choir, the local ensemble of young vocalists, was practicing Thomas’ setting of two poems of e.e. cummings, the group was added to the bill.
The concert began with the youthful choir swaying and cooing deliriously through cumming’s clipped verse, which Thomas matched with a staccato score. Thomas’ work is fun and free; so was the Elm City Girls Choir’s performance style. Eyes darting about, the girls broke into smiles as they virtually acted out the song they were singing, marveling at “Sky Candy Sprouting Violets.”
The choir’s two songs were followed by the NHSO doing a gentler, more flowing, more layered Augusta Read Thomas composition, “Prayer,” followed by the sweeping, lush “Of Paradise and Light.”
Then came the big event: Frederick Hemke, a sweet old man blowing sweetly through his saxophone in the first-ever performance of the stylistically diverse, smooth-to-jarring “Prisms of Light.” The piece was precisely the kind of thing you write to please to a virtuoso performer — jazzy, then jarring, then soulful. At one point it became a funny high-pitched dialogue between the sax, the strings and the brass, reminiscent of Carl Stallings scores for old Bugs Bunny cartoons.
But what made “Prisms of Light” extra special was that despite traveling through numerous genres, volumes, techniques and rhythms, it was a remarkably fluid, easy-to-follow stream of music.
Following a “Whew! Let’s process that!” sort of intermission, the concert resumed with another Augusta Read Thomas setting of e.e. cummings poems, sans choir this time. “Absolute Ocean” differed profoundly from the earlier “Two e.e. cummings Songs”; where the girls-choir set was sprightly, this was romantic and stirring.
All this Thomasness made the sole old-world composer on the program, even a 20th century upstart such as Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) with his trendy Ma mere l’oye (written in 1910, rewritten for orchestra in 1912) seem anticlimactic. The orchestra played the Ravel with a roundedness and a warmth. Where a modern composer such as Augusta Read Thomas allows lots of airiness in her works, someone like Ravel fills in all the gaps with swelling majestic chords.
Ravel told his Mother Goose tales, but the night wasn’t over, even if the program notes said it was. Despite the admirable pomp and pride the symphony now shows when playing new works, the NHSO still felt the need to insert new music on the program without fanfare.
That’s because it was a surprise. Furthering the theme of teachers and their students which already saturated the show, the evening ended with a short new piece, “ART Dances,” by Benjamin Scheer. Scheer lives in Branford and studied with Augusta Read Thomas when she was composer-in-residence at the NHSO and he was a teenager going to Hopkins School. He’s since graduated from the Eastman Conservatory of Music.
Scheer not only paid tribute to Thomas with this surprise sonorous birthday gift, he made full use of all the resources the NHSO had gathered for Thursday’s concert. The highlight of Scheer’s “ART Dances” was the sight of the dozens-strong Elm City Girls Choir harmonizing “Au-gus-ta!!!”
Thursday’s concert came with an amusing caveat. Since the performances of the Thomas pieces were being recorded live for a forthcoming NHSO album, the audience was advised in the program “remain as quite as possible during the performance and hold your applause for 10 full seconds at the conclusion of each work.” A pre-show live announcement suggested “wait five seconds before you applaud.”
Several times, the crowd just couldn’t even wait that five seconds before bursting into applause. Can you blame them?