March 29, 2007

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New music in Nashua
The 'Ripple Effect' makes waves
By Jeff Rapsis jrapsis@hippopress.com

It was a daring program—two seldom-played classics, plus three brand new pieces written in collaboration with local high school students.

Not that the music of a recent Nashua Symphony concert required a specialized taste to appreciate. Rather, under the baton of guest conductor Karla Lemon, it was all interesting and accessible stuff that took one's ears to new places, each well worth visiting.

The three new pieces were the culmination of the "Ripple Effect," a year-long program by which symphony executive director Eric Valliere hoped to achieve multiple goals, among them kindling an interest on the part of young people in the community's orchestra.

To that end, last year Valliere enlisted the help of former state poet laureate Marie Harris to work with Nashua High School students to create original poetry. Afterwards, their words were turned over to three working composers to use as a basis to create new pieces of new music. Meanwhile, back at the high school, other students used the poetry to create works of visual art.

Thanks to the Ripple Effect, students had a chance to collaborate with working artists outside the boundaries of high school academics, and for their work to reach out to people in the real world.

So did it work? I'm pleased to report that each of the three new pieces, all heard for the first time on Saturday, March 10, came across as successful. They turned out different, but they all had something to say and said it clearly and effectively.

Of the three, the most beguiling was Patrick Valentino's five-part "Of Seas and Self," a work featuring a half-sung and half-spoken vocal part. Valentino combined a flair for musical drama and a gift for colorful orchestration to create a piece full of surprises. With soprano Sabrina Learman throwing herself thoroughly into the spirit of the piece, the richly detailed music worked on all levels, but was especially effective in capturing the sometimes paradoxical mood of the words. I got a sense that multiple hearings would reveal a lot more of this multi-layered score.

Kevin Siegfried's "Taking the Stage" was music of more modest proportions, scored for string quartet and choral ensemble. The work, written in a minimalist style, featured repeated string patterns overlayed by choral passages, all woven into a very approachable piece that brought the poetry to life with grace and beauty. Led by Judy Greenhill, the choral ensemble sounded confident and assured.

Alan Fletcher's "Anthem" took a bigger approach, celebrating the poetry with a score for full orchestra and music of grand gestures. Soprano soloist Learman gave this her all as well, filling the Nashua High School North auditorium with a big sound that helped the piece spring to life, and brining the three piece set to an appropriately rousing conclusion.

Though the three new works took widely varying approaches, they each served as successful vehicles to showcase the poetry. Guest conductor Lemon did an able job bringing them to life for the first time.

The second half follow-up piece was equally daring—the rarely heard "Gaelic" Symphony of 1896 by New Hampshire-born composer Amy Beach. As played in Nashua, the symphony is a solid piece of work in the 19th century tradition, a score that follows all the rules but still has a personality of its own.

Under Lemon, the score got a great reading that brought out the work's many beauties. It was a match for any of the more familiar classics that orchestras play all the time. Kudos to Nashua for dusting off this one and giving it a chance to be heard once again.

Though audience attendance was below average, the Ripple Effect concert came across as one of the more original and worthy programs of its kind. Let's hope the Nashua Symphony is able to continue the program in years to come, which was part of the plan from the start.

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