First Strings

First Strings

On a breezy, clear afternoon last Friday with a daytime moon rising over New Haven Harbor, the delicate plucked notes of a viola and the dark bowing of a cello opened the New Haven Symphony Orchestra’s first in-person performance since March of last year. Attended by a sold-out audience of about 100 people spread across the rear deck of the Canal Dock Boathouse, the occasion kicked off a weekly series of Friday/Sunday concerts running through July 4.

This first weekend featured short works by Jessie Montgomery and Philip Glass, each performed by a different string quartet, followed by Felix Mendelssohn’s animated Octet for Strings, which brought the two quartets together to play what music director Alasdair Neale called “one of the great pieces in the repertoire.” Dancer Tavon Dudley, a New Haven native, elegantly interpreted the lyricality of Montgomery’s Strum, giving the audience a chance to “ it in a way it’s never been heard before,” Neale told concertgoers in his introduction.

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In fact, nearly every performance in the NHSO’s summer series will tap local talent to join members of the symphony. Next weekend, the orchestra’s performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons will incorporate original poetry from New Haven’s Draya Juanita Wilbur, Aaron Jeffries, Julian Mein and Sun Queen. A concert billed as “Horn | Cello | 4×4” features NHSO horn and cello quartets and a performance by local electric cellist Johnathan Moore. New Havener Kenneth Joseph will play steel pans in two “Steel Pan and Strings” concerts in late June, and soprano Lisa Williamson will be featured in two “July 4th on the Wharf” performances.

“We are partnering with members of our community in unusual ways that symphony orchestras generally don’t do,” Neale says, “and I think that’s a way forward”—part of what he calls a “reimagining” of the relationship between the orchestra and its city. “We’ll keep having the conversation with the community, see how we can continue to be relevant and welcoming.”

Friday’s performance featured other atypical elements as well. A mass of blue cords looped past the musicians’ feet, plugging each instrument into a sound system. Giant clips tamed flapping pages of sheet music. The hum and roar of highway traffic and the screeches of gulls asserted themselves in the pauses between each piece and movement, almost as if they were part of the program.

Even for those who might be bothered by ambient noise, the disruption is minor compared to the events of the past 14 months. “No question, it’s been a really, really tough time,” Neale says. “A lot of work has dried up, and then there’s the other emotional toll of not doing something that you’ve trained your entire life to do.” Of course, these professionals continued to practice at home. But playing together is key. “When we play as groups of musicians, we unthinkingly take all sorts of subtle visual and audio cues from one another,” Neale says, “so it’s a form of communication. And while it’s wonderful to be able to sit at home and play unaccompanied Bach, … the idea of making music together is something that’s also hard-wired in us.”

Audiences will have to wait to hear the full NHSO again. In the meantime, Friday’s eight musicians received a standing ovation. Then they packed up their instruments, staff folded up the chairs, and the music of the harbor and the highway played on.

The New Haven Symphony Orchestra at the Canal Dock Boathouse
475 Long Wharf Dr, New Haven (map)
Fri 5:30pm & Sun 3pm through July 4 | $25
(203) 865-0831 |

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, taken during Friday’s concert, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2-4, taken during Sunday’s concert, photographed by Dan Mims.

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