October 19, 2006


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Granite State Symphony makes familiar classics sound fresh
By Jeff Rapsis jrapsis@hippopress.com

Size matters. That much was made clear last weekend at the Granite State Symphony's season-opening concert, which featured two familiar masterworks made compelling by fine playing as well as the use of a relatively small ensemble.

Under the direction of Robert C. Babb, the orchestra delivered lean and muscular readings of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and the favorite foot-stomping Symphony No. 7 of Beethoven. The performances were of a high caliber from start to finish, with the ensemble sounding tight and together the whole night.

The Tchaikovsky piece, a staple of big-time romanticism, came across as especially refreshing. When the work is played by a full-sized orchestra (with half again as many string players as Babb used), often the Mozartean delicacy that pervades the piece is lost under heavy syrup.

But using a smaller orchestra, Babb and the musicians came up with what amounted to a spring cleaning of this familiar work. They made it sound light, new, and as full of passion and turmoil as the time when it was conceived and committed to paper. (Which was just after the composer attempted suicide.)

Soloist Elliott Markow, the orchestra's concertmaster, delivered an assured, serene, and altogether incredible performance that showcased the rich, expressive sound of a 300-year-old Italian violin he recently acquired.

With his new/old instrument, Markow came through with a memorable reading of the concerto, one that brought the work's musicality to the forefront but did not shortchange the many passages studded with virtuoso pyrotechnics.

Markow blended the two elements perfectly, using a sure-footed sense of music and drama, and a dash of showmanship. The result was a performance that kept listeners on their seats, as if under the spell of a classic tale told by a master storyteller.

The Beethoven, another familiar piece, was interesting and well-tooled throughout; pacing didn't suffer even as Babb took the repeat in the first movement that often seems excessive. But the players kept the focus tight, with everyone coming through when they had to, especially the horns on the fearsome high notes at the end of the first movement.

Prior to the performance, Babb wondered aloud what reviewers would make of his tempo for the second movement, the closest this restless symphony comes to having a "slow" movement.

Well, here's the answer: Just fine! Babb caught the spirit of the music wonderfully, not letting it drag at all, but not rushing either. It was more like a steady, thoughtful tread, alert and watchful, enough to keep the music aloft as it went forward.

A generation ago, there may have been a tendency to slow things down and make the second movement "weighty" and "important." After all, this was BEETHOVEN. But fresh approaches in recent years by such conductors as Roger Norrington have washed away the accumulated grime from the scores, and Babb's rendering of the second movement—indeed, the whole symphony—was very much in that spirit.

Babb and the GSSO musicians kept up the energy. Though balance and execution became a little less controlled as the work progressed, nothing came unglued and there was little to take a listener's attention from the music itself, which sounded fresh and lively and full of spirit. What more could you want in a performance of this work?

To these ears, the only real flaw in the Beethoven came in the final movement, where for some reason the brass (which had played with admirable restraint all evening, especially in the Tchaikovsky) began to let go and started overpowering the rest of the ensemble.

Whether this was due to players in other sections starting to fade after a long night or just because of misplaced enthusiasm (Beethoven doesn't often call for "triple fortissimo," or "as loud as possible"), the result was a few pages that sounded like a concerto for trumpet on tonic and dominant accompanied by orchestra.

Small potatoes, however, compared to the glories that Babb and the players brought forth all evening long. The orchestra was rewarded with a prolonged ovation, and they certainly earned it.

And after all the music had died away, there was still the happy glow of knowing that such a performance is possible right here in our own backyard, by musicians who are for the most part local people, and led by a conductor, Babb, blessed with a knack for transforming timeless classics into headlong dives into real-time musical excellence.

Review: Nashua Symphony's 'Musica Celestis' was truly other-worldly
By Irene Labombarde news@hippopress.com

While performing beloved, familiar masterpieces may help fill the concert hall, it’s often the case that the audience turns out to hear something new.

In the case of the Nashua Symphony’s concert of Saturday, Oct. 14, everyone went home happy. Called “Musica Celestis,” the program combined contemporary pieces by two living American composers with the popular “Planets” suite by Gustav Holst. The result, as performed in Nashua's Keefe Auditorium, was music with many moods and contrasts that transported listeners to far-away worlds.

Guest conductor Christian Knapp briefly addressed the audience to explain the evening’s theme as “music of the spheres, man’s struggle to achieve harmony.”

Written in 1992, Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Musica Celestis” opens very softly, with just the strings playing a simple melody. The music gradually becomes more complex, building both in speed and volume to a dramatic climax, followed by a return to the calm, harmonic mood. This work was reminiscent of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” but not as mournful in nature. The many solo lines in the strings were well executed and the sections achieved a nice balanced sound.

David Carlson’s “Symphonic Sequences from Dreamkeepers” is a tone poem based on a larger opera. The plot concerns the cultural clash between a young Ute woman, whose late grandmother was a tribal healer, and her Anglo lover, who is left unconscious after a car accident. The woman sets forth on a journey of self-exploration to return to the spirit world to try to save her lover.

Like the story, this work was very dramatic, but also had so much going on at once that it was hard to follow. In an unusual choice, the piece opens with a contrabassoon solo, giving it a very low voice. Carlson gradually adds low strings, high strings, timpani, and the other instruments, so the effect builds until the entire orchestra, heavy on percussion, is playing in a chaotic manner for quite some time, followed by an abrupt winding down.

The music briefly becomes very ethereal, like fairy dust (love that celesta!), before turning into military drum/marching music. Even with the sections listed in the program notes, it is hard to tell which scene is which. Eventually a Native American sounding flute song emerges out of the din and just floats, so one assumes that must be where the woman returns to her spiritual roots.

The piece ends with a very dramatic, triumphant dance with pounding drum beats. John Williams’ influence is noticeable in Carlson’s music, leading my husband to comment that “E.T. made it home” at the end.

The second half of the program featured the familiar work “The Planets” by Gustav Holst. From the opening notes of “Mars,” it’s clear who inspired John Williams. Imperial soldiers in white armor and the Death Star from the “Star Wars” movies immediately come to mind as soon as the piece begins.

The driving rhythms and relentless military sound of “Mars” gives way to the calmness of “Venus,” which has several violin and cello solos and rich, lush strings, harp and, once again, that angelic-sounding celesta. The remaining movements set a range of moods from lively and playful (Mercury) to slow and plodding (Saturn).

The final segment, “Neptune, the Mystic,” calls for an offstage chorus, performed by the women of the Nashua Symphony Choral Society. The chorus part is a wordless, weaving melody that sneaks in almost unnoticed. It takes some time to realize that you are hearing human voices and not the orchestra, until the final measures when no sound remains other than the voices. Instead of ending with a big bang, the piece just quietly fades out into deep space, and the audience is sent home with a peaceful sense of the vastness of the universe. Heavenly music of the spheres, indeed.

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com

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