Symphony NH music director/principal conductor Jonathan McPhee knew he’d had a busy few months, but it was put into perspective when bachtrack.com — an online classical music event finder database — compiled stats from 2014 and named him the busiest conductor in the world last year.
McPhee is also music director for the Lexington Symphony and the Boston Ballet, the second-largest musical organization in Boston. Yet he’s unwilling to give up his large workload; there’s still much to be done.
“New Hampshire [has] this national image of being one of the best places in America to live, but the one thing it gets hammered for is a lack of cultural activities,” McPhee said via phone last week. “And one of the most important things to have in a cultural arts scene is an orchestra. [The state] has seen group after group close here. … So when I was hired here, the board asked me, ‘Can you take the Nashua Symphony and make it the centerpiece for what’s happening in the cultural scene in New Hampshire?’”
The symphony has been through a great deal of growth since its rebranding in 2012. Today, it produces far more events — concerts, educational opportunities, fundraisers — than it used to, and in more cities. McPhee credits executive director Eric Valliere, the board and the musicians who’ve come along for the ride, but there’s still a ways to go.
“I still have people who come up to me and say, ‘I had no idea we had an orchestra in New Hampshire!’ The more people who find out about us, the bigger the audiences will be,” McPhee said.
At the time of his interview, he was prepping for the last Symphony NH concert of the season: “Top Form,” the highlight of which will be Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. This piece, said McPhee, is to Brahms what No. 9 is to Beethoven. It had been a while since the orchestra performed it — Valliere said he couldn’t find a record of the last time it was performed in Nashua — so the pair felt it was time.
“You want to end the season with a bang, and I always try to have something that’s monumental, a masterpiece, and that’s Brahms’ fourth symphony. It was the last big orchestral work he did, and it was probably his crowning achievement. It has great intensity, wonderful power,” McPhee said. “It was the only symphony he wrote which was an instant hit.”
Paired with this is Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture. (Think two lovers running at one another for an embrace — it happens in Clueless, Wayne’s World, Spongebob Squarepants, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and South Park; it’s also the music that plays on the computer game The Sims when two people fall in love.) The music, McPhee said, is powerfully visual, with traces of love, excitement, anger and tragedy woven in, essentially telling Shakespeare’s story in just 20 minutes.
The piece people aren’t going to know is Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. The piece, McPhee said, was originally written for the organ but it has a contemporary feel. It’s what he calls the “surprise piece,” an integral program element that will enable the symphony’s growth. Within every concert, he and Valliere like to insert a mix of recognizable and lesser-known tunes.
“That’s part of the growing factor,” McPhee said. “In our last concert, we commissioned a piece by Drew Hemenger. … When we finished Drew’s piece, the entire audience leapt to its feet. It’s such a colorful piece, and that was really gratifying. … If you walk out of the hall excitedly talking about a piece you didn’t know, then I think we’ve done a great job.”
Looking into next year, Valliere and McPhee hope to continue to surprise and challenge the symphony and its audience. On the menu is another collaboration with the Lexington Symphony, which will perform a portion of Wagner’s Ring Cycle with Symphony NH. The Keefe stage will need to expand, and so will the concert (into two nights).
As seen in the April 23, 2015 issue of the Hippo.