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December 29, 2005


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Classical Music: Top local classical performances in 2005

By Jeff Rapsis  jrapsis@hippopress.com

New York or Vienna, bah! The past 12 months were filled with fine music made right in southern New Hampshire. Here’s an opinionated round-up of the year’s very best performances by local groups.

• Saturday, Feb. 5, Nashua: Nashua Symphony, Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra by George Gershwin. Frederick Moyer not only plays the piano, he talks to it. During a performance this past weekend of Gershwin’s seldom-heard Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, Moyer appeared to be scat-singing through many sections, both during solo passages and sometimes while the orchestra was churning away.

It may have looked odd, but it sounded fantastic. Moyer and the Nashua Symphony came up with a winningly brash and extroverted rendition of Gershwin’s hot-blooded work, a lesser-known cousin of the composer’s popular Rhapsody in Blue. The concerto, a full three-movement work in classical form, is a lengthier and more demanding work for both soloist and orchestra. Happily, Moyer and Nashua Symphony conductor Royston Nash were well up to the task, presenting Gershwin’s jazz-colored work as an athletic romp from start to finish.

Moyer had the work entirely under his command, playing with a clarity that was rarely lost even in the busiest of syncopated passages. Both Moyer and Nash seemed to appreciate the energy bottled up in the score, which was Gershwin’s earliest major concert hall work and is infused with a “look what I can do with this” spirit. As performed in Nashua last Saturday night, it’s a thrilling and varied piece of music with nary a dull stretch.

• Saturday, March 26, Concord: Granite State Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony No. 6: ...A rendition that was a delight from start to finish—a performance that was fresh, energetic, supple, and, well, springy. No tired warhorse here. Under Babb, Beethoven’s familiar tribute to nature was made new again, as the musicians made brooks babble, birds sing, and downpours gush. At the opening of the final movement, a tribute to the Romantic idea of nature’s tranquility, the clouds all but parted so the sun could shine through.

These results were all the more remarkable as Babb was without a number of principal players due to the rescheduling of the concert, which was postponed from two weeks ago due to snow. Even so, the playing was solid throughout the entire program, which was held Saturday night at Concord Auditorium. Ensemble was tight, intonation in the strings was on the money, and balance was fine at all times. A special word of praise goes to the brass players, who kept the volume under in control in the Beethoven and other works on the program.

• Sunday, April 10, Manchester: Pianist Ursula Oppens at the Currier Museum, Manchester: It’s not often you get to hear a rip-roaring work like the piano version of Ravel’s La Valse brought to life. But then it’s not every day that a pianist the caliber of Ursula Oppens comes to Manchester. But she was in the city last Sunday, drawing a standing-room-only crowd for a recital at the Currier Museum. The concert was given in honor of Dr. Barbara Stahl, a long-time area educator and arts enthusiast who passed away last year.

The Ravel work, a keyboard tour de force that’s been described as a waltz on the edge of a volcano, was a memorable highlight; Oppens tore through the piece with exactly the right combination of elegance and crazed abandon. The music seemed especially powerful, as it came directly after a finely jeweled rendition of selections of Ravel’s much gentler Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Oppens has a good feel for this type of music—she brought out the many moods that lurk beneath Ravel’s polished writing.

Equally impressive was The Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, a compelling keyboard arrangement by Frederic Rzewski of a blues-style melody. Oppens really sold this vibrant modern work; she found and brought out the music even in startling rhythmic passages for the keyboard’s extreme ranges.

• Saturday, April 2, Manchester: New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2: ...the orchestra’s season-ending concert, held last Saturday at St. Joseph Cathedral in Manchester was full of compelling music-making and well worth attending. The all-Beethoven affair, originally supposed to feature the composer’s mighty Symphony No. 9 for chorus and orchestra, was reworked into a program calling for more modest forces, in part due to the orchestra’s continuing budget headaches.

But Kiesler didn’t let that hinder his eagerness to explore and bring to life a nice collection of other works by the composer: an overture, a well-known masterwork, and a lesser-known symphony. The Prometheus Overture, which opened the program, set the tone for what was to come—a full-bodied, gutsy performance that somehow evoked the composer’s life-long struggle with music and, well, life itself.

A performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 was better by far. Lively and full of verve, it rattled off the high walls and bounced merrily about the church. As the performance went on, the fun quotient increased, culminating in a finale that’s the closest Beethoven ever came to writing music for Warner Bros. cartoons. The musicians seemed to enjoy this one, and so did the audience.

• Sunday, May 8, Manchester: Manchester Choral Society, Mass in Time of War by Joseph Haydn: It was Lisa Wolff’s last concert as conductor of the Manchester Choral Society, and it would be hard to imagine a more powerful or polished finale. Stepping down after 23 years of leading the group, Wolff led performances of four of Handel’s Coronation Anthems and Haydn’s Mass in Time of War. As heard on Sunday in St. Joseph Cathedral, everything clicked. The chorus was well drilled and sang superbly, the freelance orchestra was studded with great players and provided crackerjack accompaniment, and the music was perfectly suited to the church’s live acoustics.

This happy confluence made for some of the best live music you can expect to hear, not just in Manchester but anywhere. The massed choral voices reverberating in the big church, the flash and thunder of the brass and timpani, the stately chord progressions—it’s an incomparable sound when done right, and for her final concert, Wolff got it exactly spot on. Haydn’s big Mass in Time of War was well played and full of memorable passages. One chord in particular, sung on the word ‘Sabaoth,’ clicked the way a good barbershop quartet does, and rang impressively throughout the church.

• Friday, April 29, Concord: Granite State Opera, Verdi’s Rigoletto: ... The audience was not disappointed. Artistic director Phil Lauriat seeks the best singers, stage managers, lighting directors, and set designers to enhance every aspect of the presentation, with much behind-the-scenes work unknown to audiences. One of the many familiar arias in Rigoletto is the Duke’s “Questo Quella,” (sung by tenor Eric Fennell). After having some difficulty with the high range early on, Fennell played the part to perfection. Later in the even more famous “La Donna e Mobile,” and in the famous quartet, he was greeted with enthusiastic approbation. Michael Corvino, in the title role, possesses a strong voice with an unusual quality that can be heard in the farthest reaches of the hall, and played well in the role of the despised and unfortunate jester. The role of Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter, was performed by soprano Monica Yunus, who is gifted with a lovely, lyrical voice. The ovations after each act of the opera were redoubled at the conclusion and it was clear at the curtain calls that the valiant singers who joined to create this wonderful performance were appreciated by all. - John Dowd

• Sunday, June 5, Manchester: New Hampshire Philharmonic Chamber Players at the Currier Museum: ...The Currier’s lively acoustics were the quartet’s friend, taking the string sound and lifting it up into something substantial and impressive on its own. Fine acoustics won’t help a substandard performance, but that wasn’t an issue with the Philharmonic’s chamber players. The musicians—concertmaster Elliott Markow, violinist Dana Mills, violist Paul Hoffman, and cellist Gary Hodges—came through with a polished and confident sound throughout the 90-minute concert.

The opening work, the String Quartet in D written by a 16-year-old Franz Schubert, set the bar high right from the beginning. The musicians played it big, like a symphony rather than a quartet, and this approach paid off with fine moments in all four movements. A performance of the brief Five Folk Melodies of Witold Lutoslawski was completely engaging; each of the five little movements were brought to life with grace and humor. The way the second movement ground to a halt caused the small audience to laugh out loud, something that’s unfortunately quite rare at classical music concerts.

The rarely-heard Quartet No. 4 of American composer George Chadwick rounded out the program; it’s a work that lends itself to big gestures and the players made the most of them, filling the Currier with tremendous passages of wonderful sound.

• Friday, Nov. 4, Manchester: Opera New Hampshire, La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini: Every so often you come across a production of a familiar opera that clarifies for you why the work is an enduring classic. For all the right reasons, the version of Puccini’s masterpiece La Boheme given by Opera New Hampshire last weekend was just that kind of staging. The production, created by the DiCapo Opera Theater troupe of New York City and imported to Manchester for one performance, was remarkable for what it did not do. At no time did it try to impress audiences with anything flashy, daring or strange.

Rather, the emphasis was on bringing the opera to life with energy and commitment, and letting the music and story do the work they were intended to do. In the process, director Michael Capasso’s troupe treated the Palace Theater audience to a fine night in the theater. Staged with a wealth of lively byplay between the lead singers, Capasso’s Boheme came across as more of an ensemble piece than the story of separate characters. The cast was well-matched for this approach, with no voices standing out as flat-out superb and no clunkers, either.

Conductor Pacien Mazzagatti kept things moving at a brisk pace. The pit orchestra played well but wasn’t overpowering, even when it might have been to good effect. But it allowed the voices to come across well, never covering or stepping on them. The one innovation — joining Acts II and III into one sequence — worked brilliantly. Despite a crowded Palace stage, the cast was able to effortlessly transform the scene from a wild outdoor parade into a deserted snowy gate scene, with Puccini’s mysterious opening music for Act III seemingly written exactly for it.

• Saturday, Nov. 5, Concord: Lark String Quartet at Concord Community Music School: The one-time standing-room-only concert was in memory of Jean D. London, a supporter of live music well-known in classical music circles who passed away last year. In her honor, the members of the Lark Quartet — Maria Bachman, Deborah Buck, Kathryn Lockwood, and Astrid Schween — played classic quartets by Beethoven and Dvorak and a new work they commissioned from U.S. composer Peter Schickele.

It was the Schickele piece that proved the true stunner. The composer, better known for the musical antics of his spoofing alter-ego P.D.Q. Bach, came up with a serious and multi-faceted work that, without exaggeration, should stand as an instant classic of serious music. Written in memory of his father-in-law, Schickele’s String Quartet No. 2 was above all a moving piece of music that, as performed by the Lark, grabbed listeners by the lapel right from the start and then never let go for its entire four movements.

In particular, the fast second movement Scherzo started with a buzz and built to a riotous jazzy conclusion, sweeping the audience along in a spinning and weaving cloud of arpeggios and offbeat pizzicato plucks that left everyone breathless. The crowd responded to its sudden end with an astonished gasp. Given the small church’s friendly acoustics and the up-close-and-personal nature of the concert’s staging, it all added up to an unforgettable two hours of classical music, and not in New York or Boston but here.

• Saturday, Nov. 5, Manchester: New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra, Piano Concerto by Maurice Ravel: The cross-pollination resulting from Gershwin’s in-his-prime trips to Paris and Ravel’s interest in jazz is a topic ripe for exploration. And last Saturday’s Palace Theater concert of the New Hampshire Philharmonic did just that — by juxtaposing Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G with a suite from Gershwin’s “serious” opera Porgy and Bess, a crackling sort of energy was released that helped each work come to life.

Conductor Anthony Princiotti, starting his fifth season leading the group, brought a nice sense of bounce to each work. The performances sounded well-rehearsed and polished, and the many instrumental soloists came across as confident and assured. Pianist Reiko Harigaya, soloist the Ravel, brought precision and attention to detail to the concerto. She’s not an overpowering take-no-prisoners kind of player, and that approach was a perfect match to the Philharmonic’s playing.

The program was interesting on its own, but layered on top of the music was an extensive tie-in with artists of the 1920s courtesy of the Currier Museum. A slide show of various works of the period ... served to whet the appetite for exploring the topic further in a non-concert setting. Of note was the huge turnout of students, who virtually mobbed a pre-concert lecture and then filled the Palace balcony for the music.

• Saturday, Nov. 19, Nashua: Nashua Symphony Orchestra, an evening of Gilbert & Sullivan: It was a return to his conducting roots for Royston Nash, who celebrated 20 years leading the Nashua Symphony with a recent concert of excerpts from the works of Gilbert & Sullivan. In the 1970s, Nash was music director of the D’Oyly Carte company in England, a descendant of the troupe that originally staged many of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. To celebrate his anniversary on the Gate City podium, Nash enlisted fellow D’Oyly Carte veteran tenor Geoffrey Shovelton as well as soprano Deborah Clague and baritone Richard Conrad for a high-spirited evening of music both familiar and obscure.

But it was all delightful - from the smooth and full-bodied sound of the orchestra to the semi-staged excerpts from musicals, the evening was a refreshing change from the ordinary and a strong dose of authentic Gilbert & Sullivan performed by those who know how to do it. Shovelton was in especially fine form in the Nov. 19 performance in Nashua’s Keefe Auditorium, his voice still strong and secure and his acting instincts spot-on. And his anecdotes of performing Gilbert & Sullivan while touring around Britain with Nash were exactly the right complement to the straight-man conductor by his side. All in all, it was a fine example of creative programming with musical as well as entertainment value.