October 5, 2006

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CLASSICAL REVIEWS
Reviews by Jeff Rapsis jrapsis@hippopress.com

NHSO opens season
Great music was made, but where was the audience?
What to make of the continuing paradox of the New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra, which continues to offer imaginative programs and a high standard of performing, but can't seem to put the butts in the seats?

This dynamic, which has been the case for several seasons, was in evidence yet again at the performance of last weekend's season-opener at Manchester's Palace Theatre, where conductor Kenneth Kiesler led a worthy program to a small but appreciative audience.

The performance? Top-notch. The orchestra made it look easy, delivering convincing renditions of scores as varied as film music by Aaron Copland and a virtuosic piano concerto based on melodies of Billy Joel.

As for the music—not all of it was compelling, but that happens when you reach beyond the safe standards and try for something adventurous.

Case in point: the Billy Joel work, "Symphonic Fantasies for Piano and Orchestra" recently compiled and arranged by pianist Jeffrey Biegel, came across as much ado about nothing.

Though Biegel as soloist played the heck out of the score, the overall effect on first hearing was the musical equivalent of one of those "10 countries in 10 days" tours of Europe—at any given time, it was hard to know where you were or where you were going.

Part of this was an overabundance of superficial glitz. The work started splashy, in the style of the Grieg A minor concerto, but then the showiness was seldom turned down across all four movements.

Perhaps a rescoring would help, with the idea that less can be more. Tellingly, the music was at its most effective in the quieter sections. In parts of the third movement featuring just the piano and a solo cello line (wonderfully played by Rafael Popper-Kiezer), there was definitely something present.

What? In its quieter moments, the music somehow captured the spirit of Billy Joel's music, at least as I know it, transferring it successfully to a symphonic idiom. I wanted to hear more of this material, to let it unfold and breathe, and then build into something impressive or worthwhile or dramatic.

Before that could happen, however, in came the big orchestral guns to shout the material to the skies. In most sections, the work came off as a gumbo of melodic material gussied up in various styles, something like an overlong version of Addinsell's "Warsaw Concerto," the faux Rachmaninoff pops concert staple.

Though Kiesler, Biegel, and the orchestra gave the piece a great chance, a hybrid work such as the Joel piano concerto isn't the answer to bridging the gap between the symphony orchestra and its public.

What is? A performance of John Corigliano's "Promenade Overture," a clever work, came across as a bit gimmicky, with performers walking in from the wings or through the audience. More effective were selections from Copland's score from the 1940 movie "Our Town," and an especially vibrant performance of music Leonard Bernstein wrote for Elia Kazan's film "On the Waterfront."

The Bernstein was the real thing, all protean energy, sounding in places like an embryonic version of the music he later wrote for West Side Story. Divorced from the film, the music stands powerfully on its own, and deserves to be heard more often than it is.

Showing excerpts from each film prior to the music was a good idea, but the clips both went on too long, and were projected in the wrong aspect ratio. Kiesler would not tolerate such lapses in the music; if the NHSO does more cinema projects, let's hope the same artistic standards are upheld in other mediums.

So about that paradox: why so few people? Hard to say. In the past few seasons, the New Hampshire Symphony has searched for direction. They've changed venues, and experimented with new music based on pop legends as diverse as Elvis Presley and Jackie Onassis, even at so-called serious concerts. Where is the response?

Maybe that's part of the paradox. The more a symphony tries to overtly capture the magic of pop culture, then the less it is a symphony. And that may prove unsatisfying to the core audience for such music, at least as it exists in a relatively small and conservative market such as New Hampshire.

This is not new territory. Prior to Kiesler's arrival, founding NHSO music director James Bolle often programmed esoteric, academic, and incredibly audience-unfriendly works of contemporary music. Pieces such as a symphony by U.S. composer Charles Wuorinen would send audience members scurrying up the aisles and out the doors of the Palace.

Bolle, however, also delivered crackerjack performances of familiar classics, which at least was enough to keep subscribers coming back in his era, when the orchestra's performing schedule was far more concentrated in Manchester.

In recent years, the orchestra has tried to develop a more statewide presence, a laudible goal. And Kielser, like Bolle, has come up with lively and full-blooded renditions of the classics as well. Even so, the audience base has eroded, at least in Manchester.

The answer, surely, is not a return to a conservative approach, with only recognized "masterpieces" all season along. But neither, apparently, is it gimmicky new music like the Joel piece, which tries to straddle two worlds but ends up unsatisfying fans in either place.

Still, the music is there. A new executive director, Jeth Mill, was recently hired. Let's hope he can build the audience the group deserves.
— Jeff Rapsis


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