NHSO Saxes It Up

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?

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posted by: pepsident on March 4, 2014  8:34pm

Wonderful evening of new music that orchestras with bigger budgets and much less to lose than the New Haven Symphony wouldn’t dare touch! The reign of William Boughton at the helm of our local orchestra is a gift that keeps giving. The musicians have grown and the orchestra is better than ever. Thomas’ music proves that contemporary music can be a joy to listen to- can’t wait to hear the recording. And the encore by the local lad was icing on the cake!

posted by: Queenie on March 5, 2014  12:26am

While admittedly I am rather new to the symphonic scene, Thursday night’s show, with the exception of “Prayer” “Paradise of Light”, and the Ravel piece, was nothing more than an expertly played cacophony.  The “music” composed by Thomas was disjointed, loud, and brash. More than several patrons did not return from intermission and what was left of the sparse audience could be seen shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

As for the Maestro, from where we’ve been seated the last few season, the orchestra members seems to look increasingly uncomfortable and unhappy in his presence. There’re is an abundance of beautiful music to be played. Why on earth would Boughton continue to choose such heavy, dreadful, obscure pieces to program? The empty seat, tell the true story. If NHSO is true to its mission statement which is ” to increase the impact and value of orchestral music for our audiences through high quality, affordable performances and educational programming,” than perhaps it should rethink some of its programming decisions.

The truth is the clientele is aging. If the orchestra does not do something to breathe new life into its programming, its relationship with a younger audience, and its reputation, the past 120 years will become but a memory that people wistfully speak of as part of the good old days.

posted by: Josh on March 6, 2014  11:01am

“Cacophany” hardly describes the beautiful intensity and poetry of Ms. Thomas’ work. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a semifinalist for the Pulitzer Prize, hailed by critics, embraced by the cream of contemporary conductors and musicians, Thomas is at the top of her profession.  Perhaps the previous commentator is just too provincial to open her mind to the beauty of new music. Beethoven’s work was received in his day with the same sort of criticism by those who wanted the same old standards of the orchestral repertoire. Music cannot be stagnant, it must progress with time.  The audience, while perhaps smaller than for some other programs, had more young people attending. As for the musicians being “uncomfortable” in the presence of Mr. Boughton, from my seat I saw only smiling faces at the curtain calls. Perhaps some of the musicians may find the repertoire challenging—it is of course much more difficult to play new music than the 50th performance of an old chestnut of the classical repertoire. But Boughton has undoubtedly brought the level of playing in the orchestra to a much higher standard. His programming is a thoughtful blend of old and new, and he should be congratulated, not damned for playing only the safe and familiar.