New Music and Old Share Intensity and Poetry

16/01/2018

Schubert, Samuel Jones, Brahms: Jeffrey Khaner (flute), Philadelphia Orchestra / Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 6.1.2018. (BJ)

Schubert – Overture to Rosamunde

Samuel Jones – Flute Concerto (world premiere – Philadelphia Orchestra commission)

Brahms – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.73

The Seattle Symphony is in the happy possession of a group of supporters who have banded together in a commissioning club. The prime movers, Charlie and Benita Staadecker, moved away to Florida a couple of years ago, but they are still vitally involved in a project that began around a decade ago with their commissioning a tuba concerto from the orchestra’s then composer in residence, Samuel Jones. That work was subsequently joined by concertos respectively for several other of the orchestra’s principals, and along the way the Staadeckers have been joined as co-commissioners by David Gannett, Jerry Farley, Dr. Kennan Hollingsworth, Darby Langdon and Kea Krause, Bruce and Jeanne McNae, Steven and Kathy Nichols, Ralph and Marlys Palumbo, and Betty Lou Treiger.

The latest achievement of this admirable group has been to support the Philadelphia Orchestra’s commissioning of a concerto from Jones for its own principal flute, the eminent Jeffrey Khaner, who had become a devotee the composer’s music through his participation in Gerard Schwarz’s All-Star Orchestra. The result saw the light in this program (the actual premiere took place the day before the Saturday performance under review), and I think it offers the finest achievement yet of a composer richly endowed with what I enumerated in an earlier review as ‘communicative warmth, grace of expression, spontaneity, and unpompous seriousness’, all backed by sovereign technical command.

Indeed, the first of the concerto’s three movements, Lament, which took its emotional tone from Jones’s response to the death of his brother, is emphatically the most impressive music I have encountered from the composer. It builds from relatively bare textures to climaxes of majestic strength, and it was set forth immaculately and eloquently by Khaner with the orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado’s dedicated baton-less direction. The shorter second movement provides a fluent transition to a finale titled Dream Montage – The Great Bell: America Marching, which deploys in somewhat Ivesian fashion a series of American patriotic songs drawn from the 18th through the 21st centuries. I am not absolutely sure that the work’s overarching progression from private grief to public celebration is entirely convincing (though I suppose that one could say something similar about Beethoven’s procedure on the much vaster scale of his Ninth Symphony), but it was all enormously enjoyable and clearly carried the audience with it all the way.

Heras-Casado had begun the evening with a crisply pulsating account of the overture to Schubert’s Rosamunde, and after intermission Brahms’s Second Symphony received an interpretation of ample power and not a little subtlety. Unlike Brahms’s First Symphony, which nails its dramatic colors to the mast from the very first timpani stroke, No.2 keeps the listener in some doubt for a while about what kind of piece the conductor is going to present us with. On this occasion, it was the delicate measures preceding the first-movement exposition repeat that revealed his hand: the passage was by no means obsessed with strict rhythmic control, but rather showed us a maestro disporting himself at leisure in a luxuriant and magical landscape.

Sometimes, in what followed, clarity of texture was overshadowed by poetry of feeling, but that is not a characteristic I am inclined to complain about. And the orchestra sounded glorious, with many touches of beauty from the principal oboe of Richard Woodhams, whose every arresting nuance demands close attention during what is – regrettably for the rest of us – his last Philadelphia Orchestra season.

Bernard Jacobson

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