River Oaks Chamber Orchestra presents a world premiere with a Houston connection

Sun Nov 12, 2017 at 2:50 pm
By Steven Brown

Michael Stern conducted the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra Saturday night in Houston’s Church of St. John the Divine.

Here’s a question that might be tantalizing in a classical-music trivia test: Can you name any orchestral works that call on the players to sing — literally sing?  With their voices?

That would’ve stumped most people yet Saturday, such was the case when the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra premiered Michael Gandolfi’s September 12, 1962 in Houston’s Church of St. John the Divine.

As part of the commission for a work celebrating President John F. Kennedy’s centennial, the orchestra asked Gandolfi to choose a text and figure out a way for the musicians to sing it. They settled on a speech Kennedy gave at Houston’s Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962.

The previous year, Kennedy had set the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of that decade. His remarks in Houston — readily available on video online — spelled out the value of the quest. They’re best-known for his statement that the United States must tackle such projects “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

That and a few other key comments became the work’s text, and the words morphed from a scientific challenge into an artistic one. Gandolfi, chair of the New England Conservatory composition department, solved it by setting the words to vocal lines that were compact in range and mostly in unison. But at their best, the musical contours’ impact belied their modest scope.

Speaking before the performance, Gandolfi told the audience that in crafting the piece he was “trying to channel the mid-20th Century’s positive vibe,” and the music on Saturday had tinges of the energy and brightness of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein at their most optimistic.

The 10-minute work began with brass fanfares punctuated by festive trills and flourishes from the rest of the orchestra. The music quieted and, after the players intoned a few scene-setting words, clarinetist Nathan Williams stood and spoke the beginnings of Kennedy’s message: “We meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear.”

The orchestra’s voices joined in again — with members of the string section sometimes playing and singing simultaneously. This was the work’s most stirring passage. The music had breadth but also momentum. And the span of a few notes was enough for the vocal lines to create an upward push as they invoked Kennedy’s call to reject timidness: “This city of Houston, this state of Texas … of the United States was not built by those who waited and wished to look behind.”A more agitated instrumental passage evoked the challenges facing the scientists and flyers — or perhaps it was the rumble of a rocket taking off. In any case, as the orchestra returned again to vocalizing, Kennedy’s words became less intelligible; maybe the musicians had to focus more on their instruments.

Apart from that later decrease in the oratory, the orchestra — led by guest conductor Michael Stern — played and sang with conviction. The work closed with a buoyant dance reminiscent of Bernstein’s Candide Overture. But spirited though it was, the final dance didn’t quite match the grandeur and nobility of Kennedy’s words. It would be interesting to hear this work again with a chorus focusing on the vocal parts. Maybe that would give it more cumulative power.

Actually, there was a chorus on hand Saturday — briefly. Gandolfi’s work was the afternoon’s second world premiere. The concert opened with the unveiling of The Big Heart, a short work for a cappella chorus by Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts.

Puts created it in response to Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in August. The title and inspiration came from a description of Houston that reportedly arose after the city took in people from New Orleans displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The text, by poet and librettist Mark Campbell, paid homage to generosity and the ability to rise together after a fall. Puts’ music, lucid yet sonorous, created an aura of warmth and lift in just a few phrases. And the Houston Chamber Choir, led by Robert Simpson, sang with precision and spirit. That was its sole contribution to the concert.

Stern and the orchestra built the entire program around the theme of courage. Bruce Adolphe’s violin concerto I Will Not Remain Silent paid tribute to Joachim Prinz, a German-American rabbi who confronted the Nazis in 1930s Germany and pushed for civil rights in 1960s America. From the standard repertoire came the Symphony No. 7 by Jean Sibelius, whose music embodies his Finnish homeland’s resistance to aggression, and Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, drawn from an opera —Fidelio — that celebrates bravery in more than one form.

Adolphe’s two-movement concerto, which Stern and his Iris Orchestra premiered in Tennessee in 2015, casts the violin soloist as Prinz’s musical alter ego. The orchestra, Adolphe’s program note says, sets the scenes: Nazi Germany in the first movement; the civil-rights-era United States in the second.

On Saturday, Stern and the orchestra captured the first movement’s ferocity and the second’s tension and rebelliousness. They also brought out the mystery of the quieter passages that interrupt the tension. At times, little more than a strum of the harp was enough to bring the tumult back to a personal scale.

In the violin solos that conjure up Prinz’s fervor, concertmaster Scott St. John poured out brilliant, vibrant tone. The concerto hardly let the violin out of the spotlight. But whether the solo part was facing off against the orchestra or brooding alone, St. John gave it urgency and electricity.

The former second violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, St. John did yeoman’s  service by playing in everything else on the program, too. Whether or not that tied in with the concerto’s overall theme of courage, it certainly took stamina. But valor may indeed have been involved when St. John and the rest of strings — only a chamber-orchestra-size section, after all — had to assert themselves alongside the symphonic-scale winds and brasses of Sibelius’ Seventh.

The resonant, reverberant acoustic of St. John the Divine — which is a neighborhood church, just a fraction of the size of its famous Manhattan namesake — helped the strings register. They couldn’t produce enough sound to give the symphony’s close its true depth and heft. But in some of the symphony’s richest passages, they captured the music’s passion by dint of sheer commitment.

And the strings almost never let themselves be drowned out, even though the church’s acoustics boosted the winds and brasses, too. The big brass theme that Sibelius unleashes at key moments became a sonorous, enveloping presence. The orchestra also played with vigor and crispness when the music called for it. But overall, Stern brought out the symphony’s breadth and nobility.

The Leonore Overture No. 3 also came across with a noble streak, especially when Beethoven’s lyricism welled up from the orchestra’s full-throated woodwinds. But once the music heralded the opera’s triumphant ending, excitement took over. The orchestra’s drive, agility and eagerness made for an electrifying close.

Musicians from the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra will play multiple concerts in different configurations through January. Concertmaster Scott St. John leads the full group’s annual conductor-less program Feb. 10 at the Church of St. John the Divine. rocohouston.org

One Response to “River Oaks Chamber Orchestra presents a world premiere with a Houston connection”

  1. Posted Nov 14, 2017 at 5:48 pm by John Epstein

    Yes, a most interesting program and very well-played overall.

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