For their final concert of the season, music director Richard Pittman and the New England Philharmonic chose an unlikely quartet of 20th- and 21st-century works: Steven Stucky’s “Rhapsodies for Orchestra” (2008), Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto (1938), Gunther Schuller’s “Five Bagatelles for Orchestra” (1964), and Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 (1924).
The juxtaposition of Britten and Sibelius was particularly intriguing: Whereas Britten in his concerto suggests five or six composers, Sibelius doesn’t sound like anyone else in the history of Western music. The performances of these two interpretively difficult works weren’t entirely stellar, but it was good to hear them all the same.
Britten wrote his piano concerto in the shadow of World War II, and it befuddled the British critics, who might have been expecting something more conventionally romantic and patriotic. The Toccata first movement, with its opening martellato octaves, echoes Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto; the sour second-movement Waltz nods to Ravel’s “La valse”; the concluding March, with its trite tunes and pumping tuba, pays homage to Shostakovich in a sarcastic vein; and the orchestration hints at Rachmaninoff throughout. Yet Britten, who was the soloist at the premiere, doesn’t copy so much as comment, and he stamps everything with his own personality. The piece is cheeky and irrepressible but never mean-spirited.
It’s also, at least in its solo part, a formidable technical challenge, and Randall Hodgkinson was equal to that, especially in the Toccata’s dizzying glissandos. The Waltz opened auspiciously with its duet for inebriated viola and tambourine, and the passacaglia tread of the third-movement Impromptu was maintained throughout. But overall the performance just motored along. The outer movements lacked shape, and Hodgkinson played with a hard, monochromatic, sometimes mealy tone and little humor.
The Sibelius was also problematic. This composer’s last symphony, a 22-minute single movement in C major, doesn’t develop so much as emerge, and a conductor has to let it evolve. Pittman simply pushed forward as if nothing unusual were about happen. The opening Adagio was an Andante; the great trombone solo that seems to signal a new life form was submerged. The symphony is in fact delineated by its three trombone outbursts (the second in C minor), and they were beautifully played, as was the symphony in general. But the performance, like that of the Britten, wanted for shape and tempo variation and nuance. It never bloomed.
Both the Stucky and the Schuller were Boston premieres — which was a surprise in the case of Schuller’s 49-year-old “Bagatelles.” Stucky’s “Rhapsodies,” which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, is a series of ecstatic outbursts in which one instrument essays an idea and others take it up. This worked out better in theory than in practice, though I liked the section in which the viola crooned over the orchestra’s 12-note ostinato. The Schuller was easier to take in on first hearing, a set of two-minute studies designed to explore sonority, dynamics, tone color, and rhythm. The 87-year-old composer himself came up on stage to relate how this piece came to be commissioned by the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, and though his explanation lasted almost as long as the work itself, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.