Philharmonia plays the masters like masters

It’s tough to be an orchestra in Connecticut. Overshadowed by the giants of New York and Boston, semi-professional groups like the Hartford or Waterbury symphonies toil with mixed results. Artistic aspirations are constantly tempered by the goal of coddling the ossified audience, whose donations assure the orchestra’s survival.

Without doubt, the Yale Philharmonia is the best orchestra in Connecticut. On Jan. 21, the Philharmonia played with three compelling young soloists, all winners of the Yale School of Music’s 2004 Woolsey Hall Competition. The concert was exhilarating: The vivacity, power and precision of the orchestra’s playing bore comparison to, and sometimes surpassed that of, many professional groups. (Perhaps the staid New York Philharmonic could learn a thing or two from the Philharmonia’s young membership and high turnover.) It’s also a much better deal — all but one of its concerts this year are free.

Tenor Rolando-Michael Sanz and hornist William Anthony Martin joined forces with the group’s string section in Benjamin Britten’s 1943 “Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.” Edward Sackville-West, to whom the work was dedicated, described its focus: “The subject is night and its prestigia: the lengthening shadow, the distant bugle at sunset, the baroque panoply of the starry sky, the heavy angels of sleep; but also the cloak of evil — the worm in the heart of the rose, the sense of sin in the heart of man.”

Britten’s literary genius was a particularly fortuitous talent for the composer. His “Serenade,” written for tenor Peter Pears (Britten’s lifelong partner) and hornist Dennis Brain, puts heavy demands on both soloists. It opens and closes with a particularly daunting unaccompanied passage for natural horn (in general, horns have valves; a natural horn has none, requiring the player to control the pitch with his mouth alone.)

Martin set a darkly pastoral mood in this introduction — its parting offstage echo was suffused with otherworldly calm. Sanz’s tenor is clear, rich and accurate; in terms of pure sound, he was a joy to listen to. Unfortunately, he fell short in his interpretation of the poetic aspects of “Serenade.” Each song was beautiful but in exactly the same way, leaving one with the odd sense that Sanz was singing the words without understanding them. Perhaps he could take advantage of his proximity to Yale College and audit a class on English poetry.

The Philharmonia’s strings were mellow and well-balanced: They were near-perfect accompanists.

Cecile Chaminade’s 1902 “Concertino for Flute and Orchestra” gave the program of otherwise faultless music a slightly ridiculous twist. Pleasant melodies, dutifully colorful orchestration and an appropriately flashy solo part are not enough to make an interesting piece, especially in this context. Therefore, it says a great deal about flutist Conor Nelson’s performance that I enjoyed it immensely. Nelson is the embodiment of a showman. His stage presence is genial, his dress is stylish and he even grins on cadences.

Does an obscure underdog of a piece by an obscure, third-rate composer, have any place between masters like Britten and Brahms? Though it was certainly an odd choice, its validity was maintained by Nelson’s effortless and ebullient performance.

It’s a sad consequence of the conservative programming of most orchestras that the occasion to hear one of the towering monuments of the symphonic literature — Brahms’ fourth symphony — roused about as much enthusiasm in me as a routine checkup. At least one eager student orchestra seems to take it on every year.

Because I was prepared for yet another uninspired read-through, I was taken aback by conductor Shinik Hahm’s unconventional interpretation. The first movement was very stately, but the Philharmonia’s taut conviction prevented it from feeling too long. The first violins, led by Jooyeon Kong, were particularly strong, especially during the transition to the second theme and in the movement’s shrieking, grief-stricken coda. Hahm, conducting from memory and mostly with his eyes closed, brought out the inner voices within Brahms’s thick orchestration. I liked his forceful attack of the second movement, a more creative idea than sneaking up on it. The third and fourth movements were, in turn, a final yelp of joy — and an omniscient, despairing summation of human existence.

I heartily recommend the Philharmonia’s concerts to everyone, and I’m particularly looking forward to hearing them interpret Haydn and Mahler Feb. 25. (It’s not everyday that one gains insight into human existence through the simple act of listening to music.)

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