BSO features Kechley’s new literary symphony

In spite of many setbacks, the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra (BSO) pulled off a forward-thinking program entitled “Three Premieres and a Classic” last Friday night.
While there is always a mix of apprehension and excitement involved in a work’s premiere, this particular program must have caused a few more gray hairs than usual for everyone involved due to unexpected sicknesses and snowstorms. After the principal violinist, Joanna Kurkowicz, came down with strep throat a few days before the concert, principal second violinist Joana Genova-Rudiakov had to quickly learn the principal first violin part, which included several solos in every piece, and Alicia Choi ’09 had to take over the helm at the principal second violin seat. One of the trumpet players also came down with the flu and had to be replaced at the last minute with a trumpeter from New York City. On top of all the illnesses, the wintry weather prevented many from getting to rehearsals (and many potential audience members from getting to the concert).

Despite all these obstacles, the orchestra managed to put together an intriguing concert. The first piece on the program, Kevin Kaska and John Debney’s Suite from Lair, was well-played but seemed an odd choice. There has been a recent trend of professional orchestras performing music from video games and movies to attract younger audiences, but I felt that the reason behind choosing this piece was more to be modern for the sake of being modern rather than any aesthetic purposes. The Suite sounded like a rehash of John Williams’ themes, which in-and-of themselves are rehashes of classical repertoire.

The next piece, music department chair David Kechley’s Wakeful Vision/Moonless Dreams: A Symphony in Four Movements was my favorite of the premieres. The piece originated when Kechley was commissioned by a New England orchestra to write a 20-minute composition. He envisioned a four movement symphony, but realized that his ideas would not fit into 20 minutes, and so he altered his plans for that particular commission. He later reworked the piece, using the first two movements from the commissioned piece and adding on a new third and fourth movement.

Each movement is based on a literary source. The first, “Whirlwind,” is based on the Biblical line: “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” Rather than interpreting it in an exclusively religious sense, Kechley meant to explore the consequences for all human mistakes. In his pre-concert talk, Kechley applied the principle to everything from the Iraq War to environmental issues. The movement has an ominous feel, punctuated by bass drum rolls and string pizzicatos, and a duet between the harp and percussion had a particularly eerie effect.

The second movement, “Notari Notari,” could not have been more different from the first. It is based on a Japanese haiku by Yosa Buson and had a distinctly Asian sound. The strings repeatedly played a staid rhythm corresponding to the word “notari,” which translates to “undulating.” The movement featured a beautiful flute solo by Floyd Herbert and a decisively confident cello solo from Nathaniel Parke.

The third movement, “Something Wicked,” was based on a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs,/something wicked this way comes,/open, locks,/whoever knocks!” The knocking was directly translated into the strings playing col legno (hitting the stick of the bow against the strings) and the percussion. The movement was a dark scherzo, simultaneously playful and creepy. The orchestra struggled the most with this movement and seemed hesitant with the trickier rhythms.

The fourth movement, “Moments,” based on a Marcel Proust quote regarding memory, was the most abstract. The composition seemed a bit disjointed, going back and forth between lush, dark brass chorales and rather arbitrary dissonant sections. There were several reminders of the previous movements; a theme from the first movement reappeared in both the strings and winds, and an offstage piccolo solo towards the end of the piece reminded me of the flute solo in the second movement. Kechley’s piece succeeded as program music with a modern twist, and the orchestra, though not always technically perfect, captured the distinct feel of each movement.

The second half of the concert featured Felipe Lara’s Onda and George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Onda’s work was definitely the most abstract and challenging piece on the program. In the program notes, Lara describes the main idea as the creation of “movement in stillness, a metaphor for the ocean.” This idea was manifested in long sustained notes in the strings and brass topped with flourishes by the winds.

Onda was followed by the jolly An American in Paris. The contrast between the two pieces was so great that it bordered on comical. The inclusion of the Gershwin was clearly a gift to the audience (and perhaps the orchestra members themselves) and a return to the standard repertoire. Written in 1928, the harshest sounds produced in this playful piece are the taxi horns used to evoke the city streets of Paris. Several soloists were highlighted, including a singing English horn solo, a jazzy trumpet theme and even a beautiful, round tuba solo. The orchestra’s performance of An American in Paris fit the bill as a pleasant, comforting end to an otherwise experimental evening.