For the New England Philharmonic, world premieres are not unusual. In the 23 years with music director emeritus Richard Pittman at the helm, audiences could count on at least one or two per season, and in this year of searching for Pittman’s successor, there are several in the offing.
But generally when musicians are taking part in a premiere, they’re aware of it. The NEP and guest conductor Adam Kerry Boyles — one of four candidates in the running for the music director position — knew that Amy Beach’s 1903 concert aria “Jephthah’s Daughter” had seldom been performed since its composition in 1903. However, until quite recently, they didn’t know that they might be delivering the world premiere of the orchestral version. As of Sunday afternoon, there was no evidence the piece had ever been performed in its full orchestral glory rather than its piano/vocal reduction, so was it a world premiere? The world may never know, but considering the paltry recognition the orchestral version has received over the past 100-plus years, it may as well have been.
This season’s repertoire, “Jephthah’s Daughter” included, was selected in advance by a committee of New England Philharmonic members and leaders. Introducing the piece from the podium at the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University, Boyles said he hoped the performance would “lend the piece some legs.” Together with soprano Sarah Pelletier, he and the NEP made a strong case for why it deserves wings.
Beach, a composer and performer who lived in Boston for most of her career, left the score for “Jephthah’s Daughter” in Europe when her tour was curtailed due to the onset of World War I in 1914. Eventually, she recovered it in 1929, scholar C.E. Aaron wrote in the preface to the edition performed by the New England Philharmonic. However, no evidence could be found that it was ever performed with an orchestra, and Beach’s music faded into obscurity for several decades after her death. The only documented recent performance of “Jephthah’s Daughter” took place at a 1995 concert devoted to Beach’s music at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with soprano Ellen Chickering and pianist Virginia Eskin performing the piano/vocal edition. Writing up the concert for The Boston Globe, Richard Buell noted the composer’s “enjoyment of the ampleness of ample forms,” imagining her saying to herself, “the better to upholster you, my dear.” Ultimately, the music was written off as a kitschy novelty.
Twenty-six years later, I can conclude that, much like the piece’s central figure — the nameless Book of Judges maiden who was either sacrificed or cloistered for the rest of her life because of a promise her father made to God — “Jephthah’s Daughter” got a raw deal. Pelletier’s face was hidden behind a singer’s mask, though no visuals were necessary thanks to the torrent of emotion she gradually unleashed in her pellucid voice. The only improvement would have been keeping the text in its original French, rather than the composer’s workable but unwieldy translation into English. Behind Pelletier, the orchestra readily rendered Beach’s vibrant chromatic landscape, and Boyles dialed up the intensity in tandem with the soloist. Is it possible that absent the rich textures of the orchestra, the piano/vocal version could have sounded blander than intended? Absolutely, and now that the full version has been dusted off, the time seems right for a revival.
From an audience member’s perspective, Boyles set a high bar for the next three music director hopefuls to visit the New England Philharmonic podium this season. Michael Gandolfi’s flashy fanfare “Stepping Up” was uncharacteristically shaggy (a shortage of rehearsal time for the shortest piece, perhaps?) but a shimmer illuminated Bernard Rands’s “DREAM.” Rands’s impressionistic piece could have faded into the ether on first hearing, but because Boyles took a few minutes to excerpt important themes and moments for the audience, including an eerie, hazy “Hitchcock chord” that he dubbed “the key of the piece,” the journey suddenly had several landmarks. Boyles’s field guide to the piece was enthusiastic and comprehensive but succinct, and the concert lost no momentum.
Sixteen-year-old Ella J. Kim, this year’s Young Artist Competition winner, took a turn in the spotlight with Saint-Saens’s virtuoso showpiece “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” and merited a shower of bravas. The program’s capstone was the Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloé”; principal flutist Michael Horowitz contributed a Syrinx solo that would be the envy of any professional orchestra, and as Boyles conducted the final bacchanal scene, the music seemed close to spinning off the rails — but never did. If the impression Boyles left in the rehearsal room with the orchestra is anything like what he showed the auditorium, the director search is off to a strong start.