Good Show

Good Show

Think the symphony isn’t for you? Rethink that. The New Haven Symphony Orchestra gave their third concert of the season last Thursday, pairing Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring: Suite for Full Orchestra with guest artists Time for Three performing Kevin Puts’s Contact, and proved themselves versatile, fresh and accessible.

Exhibit A: music director Alasdair Neale, who strides onstage wearing black like any conductor. Unlike most, he then turns to the audience, welcomes you, and describes what you’re about to hear. If you come early, he often gives a more extensive pre-concert talk. He’s articulate and passionate about the music, and hearing him describe it is like listening to a bonus piece on the program. This night, he promised that the second half—with guest artists Time for Three—would “rock the house.”

He wasn’t wrong. From the moment the trio of Nick Kendall and Charles Yang on violin and Ranaan Meyer on double bass ran onto the stage—Kendall and Yang wearing heretical white sneakers—we could see that something different was about to happen. An observant concertgoer might have noticed something different already at the bottom of the program, where Contact was to be followed by “additional selections to be announced from the stage.” The audience collectively took a breath of surprise as the trio lifted their instruments—and sang. They sang the opening phrases of Contact in tight, haunting three-part harmony that hovered high in the tenor range. The orchestra’s oboe picked up “the call”—the title of this first of four movements—and Time for Three picked up their bows.

Composer Kevin Puts collaborated with Time for Three to write Contact, which “contemplates the concept of ‘contact’ in the age of COVID-19” and was premiered in 2022. Neale has worked with the trio for a decade at the Sun Valley Music Festival in Idaho, and the genesis of this piece, he told me in an interview a few days before the concert, occurred during “a hike that Nick and I took one day when they were there, and we just shot the breeze some various ideas he had.”

Contact, like the concert’s first half, Appalachian Spring, is American music—not Copland’s spirited, imagined portrait of life on a 19th-century Appalachian farm but Puts’s spirited, imagined portrait of life in a 21st-century world struck by a pandemic and looking beyond itself for answers. Contact carried us over ocean swells of stormy orchestral energy and almost unbearably exposed single notes. Other times, it was hard to discern the voices from the strings.

Time for Three’s physical performance was part of the package. They played aggressively and athletically, with the orchestra’s muscle lifting them up. Symphony purists may not have appreciated their showmanship but couldn’t have missed their musicianship. They are, as Neale put it in our interview, “a volcanic force for excitement and beautiful music.” An unsurprising standing ovation led to those mystery pieces mentioned at the end of the program, which showcased the group’s range, from a lovely pop-classical tune titled “Vertigo” to a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Stand by Me” (never did I imagine New Haveners singing the Ben E. King tune in stuffy old Woolsey Hall—or the maestro plopping down on the podium to listen) to a playful take on Vittorio Monti’s “Csárdás” backed by the exuberant orchestra.

And let’s not shortchange Copland’s classic Appalachian Spring. Unlike Contact, this piece was somewhat familiar to me. Nevertheless, I appreciated not only Neale’s introduction to it from the stage but also the informative and unassuming program notes written by Gabi Tunucci. (If you bring kids—free of charge with an adult—there’s also a fun booklet of program notes specially written for them.) I rarely listen to classical music recordings, but I love hearing the music live, watching it in the making. It comes to life not only through sound but also through the harpist reaching for a string and plucking it with a studied flourish, the violinists tipping their heads into the force of their bowing, the timpanist slinging his mallet over his shoulder between strikes. In the quiet moments of Appalachian Spring, the small, mostly unseen woodwind section gets a chance to shine, a special pleasure for this former clarinet player.

In the final, gorgeously gentle measure of the suite, someone in the audience dropped something on the floor and broke the illusion. Neale held the orchestra and all of us in an extended moment of silence as if to repair the flaw. Oh, well—with live music comes a live audience. We know from watching ensembles on sterile Zoom a few years ago that the audience is part of the experience, and there we were.

This is Neale’s last season with NHSO. He arrived in 2019 with “a flying start.” Soon he’s flying off to Paris, where he and his partner moved recently to be closer to Neale’s family—and, bien sûr, to Paris. “We made this decision at the beginning of the pandemic to move closer to where I grew up Edinburgh,” Neale told me. “The pandemic gave us a chance to reflect on what we do with our time, how we choose to spend it, what our priorities are.” Neale will continue to serve as music director of Sun Valley, as he has for the past 30 years. And though he’s leaving us, he has only praise for the musicians of NHSO. “I shall miss them greatly,” he says. “I’ve been so lucky to have the chance to make music with them these last few years.”

If you haven’t seen Neale conduct yet, you still have plenty of time. The coming season is packed with more stellar guests and pieces ranging across the history of classical music and around the globe, along with quite a few American works. Coming up next, on November 19 at SCSU’s Lyman Center, is the premiere of “NHSO audience favorite” Joel Thompson’s breathe/burn, a “poignant elegie in memory of Breonna Taylor for solo cello and orchestra.” Also on that program are Florence Price’s Symphonie No. 1 and Mark Adamo’s Cello Concerto, performed by guest artist Jeffrey Zeigler. Later this season: the traditional holiday pops concert and Handel’s Messiah; Vivaldi’s perennial favorite The Four Seasons; concerts featuring works of Mozart and Tchaikovsky, the Harlem Renaissance and “Latina Leading Ladies of Broadway”; a concert especially programmed for kids; and more.

After Thursday’s concert, with “Stand By Me” still ringing in our ears, we stepped out into a warm October evening, already looking forward to hearing more. Stand by your orchestra, New Haven. They’re magnificent.

New Haven Symphony Orchestra
Tickets: $15-$69; students $10; kids under 18 free with an adult; additional kids $10
Box office: (203) 693-1486

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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