5/30/2013 - New and old fuse together in multiple ways at the Nashua Chamber Orchestra’s “Past and Present” concert this weekend.
Powerful music by Johannes Brahms, a world premiere and 13-year-old pianist Kevin Chen characterize this eclectic show that award-winning composer Robert E. Smith calls “toe-tapping.”
“It’s very listenable music. It’s the kind that gets your toes tapping,” Smith said in a phone interview.
This show marks the world premiere of his “Lithuanian Rhapsody,” which was commissioned by the Nashua Chamber Orchestra and Zylonis Foundation, a local group that promotes Lithuanian culture.
“Lithuanians have very interesting folk music that not a lot of people know about,” said David Feltner, Nashua Chamber Orchestra musical director. “It’s very beautiful material, and it’s rare to hear it here. Our goal is to bring it to a wider audience and give it a new color with the orchestra.”
Smith says the Nashua Chamber Orchestra has a pretty good track record for commissioning new work. This marks the third piece Smith has written for the group. He said he knew very little about Lithuanian music before he took on the challenge and spent a good part of the summer researching, which incidentally, turned out to be more difficult than he anticipated.
“There’s no printed Lithuanian music anywhere online. When I thought of their folk dances, I thought it’d sound like a Polka party,” he said.
It was nothing of the sort. He finally found the sheet music he needed from the Boston Public Library and Harvard.
“There’s a level of sophistication in Lithuanian folk songs. They’re sung in rounds — think ‘Row, Row Row Your Boat,’ where one person starts the tune, and they overlap,” Smith said. “Some of their harmonies are very surprising … There are beautiful customs associated with courting, symbols of plants and animals, and I thought it was a wonderful education for me, to look at culture I didn’t know anything about.”
The composition is what Smith describes as “an assembly job,” comprised of many Lithuanian songs in one piece.
For Feltner, conducting new music can be difficult, but it’s also exciting.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a welcome challenge. You have to find your own way. There’s no previous example to draw on. … You have liberty to do whatever you want, and there’s no expectation,” Feltner said.
The chamber orchestra is also playing “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” by Johannes Brahms.
Thirteen-year-old Kevin Chen is the featured soloist in the “Grieg Piano Concerto.” A middle school student from North Andover, Mass., Chen has been playing the piano for six years. He’s been working on this piece, with all three movements, for about eight months now.
“It’s more challenging than anything I’ve ever done. I’ve also never played a whole concerto before, with all three movements,” Chen said in a phone interview. “It’s one of my favorite concertos. I like the melodies in the first and third movements, and I think it’s a fun piece to play with the orchestra.”
He’s played with the Nashua Chamber Orchestra once before in a library concert. It’s quite different when you do it with an orchestra. “You have to be more strict with your rhythm. You have to be on the same page with them. … But it’s also a lot more interesting to play with the orchestra,” Chen said.
Feltner thinks audiences will be impressed.
“Seeing this music pouring out of this young person, it blows you away. … What I found really remarkable was that he he could play a lot of notes fast, which is sometimes the mark of a child prodigy, but he’s also very poetic. He’s great at telling a story or projecting a mood. It’s very sensitive playing, and you don’t really expect that so much from a young person,” Feltner said.