Conductor Tianhui Ng leads the way with the New England Philharmonic
Explaining your own music is “very easy to do wrong,” composer Yehudi Wyner said at the start of the New England Philharmonic concert on Sunday afternoon. Moments later, the orchestra premiered Wyner’s new piece, the short but powerful “Richard Pittman.” . . Come Back!”, a commission in honor of the orchestra’s music director emeritus. Wyner chose not to say anything else.
Writing music and speaking about it are indeed two entirely separate skill sets, and during the concert, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning veteran Wyner nor the New York Philharmonic score call winner England 2020 Sofia Rocha only seemed keen to put their bits on display when asked to take the mic. It doesn’t matter: it’s not their job as composers. But it’s no secret that for many classical listeners who are more accustomed to hearing orchestras play Mozart and Beethoven, 20th and 21st century orchestral music (the specialty of the New England Philharmonic) can seem inaccessible or at best daunting, so it’s a good idea to have someone on hand who can be the listeners’ guide. On Sunday afternoon at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center, Singapore-born conductor Tianhui Ng, who currently leads several projects including the Boston Opera Collaborative and the Pioneer Valley Symphony, showed he can easily be that someone from the New England Philharmonic.
Take Rocha’s piece, “Replier”, pronounced “re-plee-AY”, after the French, “replier”. In its opening bars, the orchestra essentially experiences a whole-body shiver. The solo violin quickly alternates between two notes; the next violinist joins but widens the interval between them; the next expands it again, and so on until the entire section has been inserted. In “Replier”, Rocha uses changes in dynamics and orchestral color to create several sonic illusions of closeness. More than once, the room evoked the feeling of being confronted with something incredibly vast, like a glacier or the endless blackness of space. I would happily hear it again if given the opportunity, especially in a space like Jordan Hall or Symphony Hall that could really amplify those illusions to their full potential. (Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Modern Orchestra Project – remember Rocha’s name.)
Still, it was Ng’s introductory remarks that took the “Replier” experience from great to unforgettable. Like Director Emeritus Pittman and the two musical director nominees who have taken turns over the past few months, Ng led the orchestra in several excerpts from each piece (except Wyner’s) while introducing the music. And of the music director candidates so far, his picks of what was most important to preview in each piece struck me as particularly helpful. Before Chen Yi’s one-movement violin concerto “Spring in Dresden”, Ng briefly oriented the audience to the vocal tradition of Peking opera which the composer drew from writing for strings, and plunging vocalizations were palpable in the delicately sharp interpretation of concertmaster Danielle Maddon. solo. As a member of the public, I can say that I would have learned to listen to music that seemed “difficult” to me much earlier if I had known someone like Ng making his way through the thickets.
Finally, the sequel to Silvestre Revueltas’ score for the film “La Nuit des Mayas” called for direction, and Ng and the orchestra delivered it enthusiastically. Before the music began in earnest, the 14-member percussion section demonstrated some of the atypical instruments that joined the orchestra. These included a hollow log drum and a conch shell; the latter was blown by NEP composer-in-residence Eric Nathan, who has a background in trumpet. Even from my seat in the orchestra section, I could easily make out the distinct sounds during the hypnotic revelry of the fourth movement.
The New England Philharmonic has scheduled this season without intermission both as a precaution against COVID-19 and in an attempt to reduce concert times; in Pittman’s day, concerts frequently exceeded the three-hour mark. However, if Ng is selected as musical director and intends to include explainers before the piece (as they should), the orchestra should either postpone those intermissions or shorten the programs. Two hours is a long time to sit in one place, whether your chair is on stage or at home.
NEW ENGLAND PHILHARMONIC
Tsai Performance Center, May 1. www.nephilharmonic.org