Folk Music From Imaginary Culture Floods Woolsey Hall

Beinicke Rare Books LibraryThe New Haven Symphony Orchestra kicked off their 2015-2016 season with a bold statement, indicating their commitment to replenishing not only the repertoire of orchestral music, but also the audience for it.

Last Thursday night saw Woolsey Hall filled with families as part of the “School Night at the Symphony” program the orchestra is running this season, and the initiative is admirable, allowing audiences to attend who would not ordinarily be able to. Thursday’s program featured three works by composers known for their connections to folk music. Three — Antonin Dvorak, Jean Sibelius, and Edvard Grieg — are comfortably part of the established canon. The fourth work was a piece commissioned from composer Hannah Lash, who is creating a folk music to match an otherworldly document nearly five centuries old: the baffling and highly intriguing Voynich Manuscript, housed in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“I don’t find my music directly connected to any type of existing folk music, but I sometimes like to try to create a music that sounds like a folk music from some imaginary culture”, said Lash via email. “To me this means something with a high degree of character, so I set up my own “vernacular” as it were, and follow it through.” As the NHSO’s current composer in residence, Lash attended Thursday’s performance as well.

The work — “Herbal,” the first movement of a long-form symphonic work currently titled The Lash/Voynich Project —was full of percussive energy, anchored by a trio of cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer of Hungarian origin), vibraphone, and harp. Lash took advantage of both the sharp attacks and watery sustains of these instruments. Conductor William Boughton introduced the piece as a dance, and it wasn’t difficult to follow the pulse within the dense texture kicking the movement off. But as the movement continued, the pulse was met with increasing resistance from the strings, and earlier bird-like flourishes from the winds gave way to more disruptive interjections, particularly some closely-harmonized lines in the trumpets that could’ve been equally at home in Serbian or Mexican brass music. The end of the movement, with prominent soli passages from the cimbalom, first violin, trumpet, and bassoon, saw the piece scaling back some of its earlier density, but retaining its focus, like those last dancers on the floor at the end of the night, unwilling to break the spell.

“I believe that if I listen hard enough to the musical ideas and pay close enough attention to them, allowing them to blossom fully and live their lives out in a piece of music, I have the best chance of having the music come across to an audience,” said Lash, speaking about her process.

Those words could also have been instructive to new and seasoned audience members alike, as the program brought them to a series of worlds, some real, some mythic, some imagined.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto is a work full of distinct, memorable melodic ideas, and soloist Michael Brown walked a fine line between bombast and sensitivity, displaying the latter especially in his completely solo moments, which had an intimacy to them even in the sometimes-unflattering echoing acoustic of Woolsey Hall. Brown seemed to be having fun spurring the orchestra on, particularly in the third movement, in which the piano’s melodic lines are loaded with the ornamentation of Norwegian fiddle music. It was also nice to see and hear a meaningful communication between conductor, soloist, and orchestra when other instruments were given a spotlight. A concerto for a polyphonic instrument like a piano allows composers to treat the solo instrument as an orchestra-within-an-orchestra, and as the performance demonstrated, Grieg made full use of these possibilities.

Jean Sibelius’ “The Swan of Tuonela” explores the relationship between soloist and orchestra in a slightly different way, using imagery from the Finnish epic poem Kalevala to help shape the course of the piece. “Tuonela” is a tone poem, a genre within the orchestral tradition that uses the forces of the orchestra to set a scene or tell a story. By casting the English horn, played by Olav van Hezewijk, as the titular swan, Sibelius left the orchestra with two roles: setting the scene around Tuonela, the island of the dead, and filling in the actions of the other character in the legend. The work, for all its narrative ambition, is rather static, changing character only slightly in the second half when the timpani introduces a steady pulse. But the NHSO found some deeper interest from moment to moment, particularly in the relationship between horn and orchestra. At some points, the mellowness of the double-reed instrument was completely enveloped by the surroundings, while cutting through at others, and Boughton made the most of the piece’s exploration of timbre and color.

The performance closed with Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony. Before lifting his baton, Boughton explained to the young audience members that the symphonic form is hefty, and that this particular example was one result of Dvorak being urged to write more serious music on the advice of fellow composer Johannes Brahms. The acoustic of Woolsey Hall — which has some peculiarities this author cannot explain — did not favor the nuances of this work’s first and third movements. This was so despite the orchestra’s spirited performance. The symphony’s very Germanic motif development was on plain display, even when the harmonic progression was subverted with more outright chromatic lines, or in transitional passages in the final movement when the orchestra confidently explored some of the work’s dissonances.

The Lash/Voynich Project is being sponsored by a Kickstarter campaign. The second movement premieres in the spring. The New Haven Symphony Orchestra performs the music of Sibelius and Nielsen on Thursday, October 29th at Woolsey Hall.

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