YSO opens season with mixed success

The Yale Symphony Orchestra, led by Shinik Hahm, performed their first concert of the season Saturday night. The result was a questionable assembly of the totally forgettable, the problematic and the great.

The second half of the program was the more successful, with Maestro Hahm directing the orchestra in an appealingly spirited rendition of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony. Mahler was arguably the best orchestrator in the roughly 150-year history of the modern symphony, and this genius translates into daunting performance challenges. Aside from a few sour notes from the horns, though, the orchestral playing was better than one would have expected from a college group. Climaxes were fierce, intonation was generally good, and Hahm was clearly at home with the outsized Romantic gestures.

Particularly impressive was the opening of the third movement, when successive solo entries intoned a variant of the familiar “Frere Jacques” tune. Soloists on the cello, oboe and brass took their turns with flawless intonation and impressive coordination.

The first half of the evening was something else altogether. The concert’s opener was “Millennium Fanfares,” a new work by Yale Director of Bands Thomas Duffy, commissioned by Hahm for Korea’s Daejon Philharmonic.

Where to begin? This piece is nonmusic; it is composition of the most vulgar sort; it is a compendium of musical cliches that drags on for 20 minutes. The brass fanfares are exactly like every other unimaginative brass fanfare ever written, and the drums bang out march rhythms that are so predictable as to be unnoticeable. Harmonic, textural and rhythmic subtlety is totally absent.

What’s more, the piece “means something.” According to the program notes, its topic is nothing less than the history of civilization. No, not just European civilization; the Eastern hemisphere is accounted for by a section of pentatonic scales. Apparently the end of the work communicates the dangers of dehumanization through e-mail communication. But thankfully, as Duffy writes, in the end “the message is optimistic.” If this is Hahm’s idea of vital new music, though, there is plenty not to be optimistic about.

The next work on the program, performed in conjunction with the Tokyo String Quartet, was also problematic. In 1933, modernist pioneer Arnold Schoenberg recast a Handel concerto grosso into a work for string quartet and large orchestra. He rewrote whole movements and eliminated what he saw as banalities, replacing them with twinges of 1930s-era modernist writing. As a musical project it falters in comparison to Stravinsky’s masterwork “Pulcinella,” which updates music by early 18th-century Italians more subtly and far more successfully. Yet it is a rarely heard work that is interesting in its own way and which Hahm deserves some credit for programming.

The performance, as well as the piece itself, presented problems. Intonation and ensemble were almost always iffy, and while the world-renowned Tokyo Quartet had a strong and confident tone, the tentativeness of the orchestral accompaniment prevailed.

In the end, the most troubling thing about this concert was that it contained two of only three works scheduled for this season that were written after 1911 (the other being one of Shostakovich’s powerful but musically conservative violin concerti, scheduled for the YSO’s February concert). The Duffy work doesn’t count as contemporary music in any meaningful sense, and so we are left with the Schoenberg as the year’s only representative of modernism in a season dominated by Mahler, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. And the Schoenberg is only admitted, one feels,because its hints of already dated modernist thought are rendered “palatable” by a context of thoroughly inoffensive 17th-century harmony. Here challenging music is presented as parody, inducing a smirk rather than a musical response.

This utter neglect of the tremendously varied and essential modernist repertoire is unfortunate not only for the audience; it is a disservice to the players themselves. Those among the YSO performers who intend a career in music are forced to seek out their own opportunities to encounter, confront and master a repertoire to which Hahm will not expose them. At worst their musical growth will be stunted, and at best they will have lost a wonderful opportunity to perform innumerable important orchestral masterworks of a fundamentally different sort.

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