With the search ended for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s next artistic director—special thanks to Timothy Vernon for keeping the ship musically afloat following Michael Reason’s departure—it was with much anticipation that James Sommerville took the Hamilton Place stage in a program that would test the mettle of veteran conductors, much less newly minted ones.
Clearly a players’ conductor (steeped in the Boston Symphony’s rich tradition of excellence as its principal horn for nearly a decade—a marvellous preparation for learning the craft) Sommerville appears to have the respect of his colleagues and their desire to please both the new leadership and their faithful audience.
Management too (from the volunteers on the board to the quartet of paid administrative staff) has its hopes pinned to their first-in-command on the musical front. So, was this choice a good deal?
From a purely logistical and practical viewpoint, the conclusion is a resounding yes. Like his style as an instrumentalist, Sommerville exudes confidence and devotion to his art that is immediately apparent and welcome. Having participated and savoured many concerts with the world’s finest artists and either endured or booked-off programs led by lesser lights or down-right pretenders, Sommerville completely understands how important his relationship with the musicians will be.
Accordingly, for Saturday’s program he chose tempi that pushed, but didn’t torment his charges (the Beethoven Symphony’s “Menuetto” flew but didn’t dance; the “Finale” moved steadily ahead rather than impetuously towards the incredible last hurrah). Understandably, some nerves crept into the early going of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, yielding differing conceptions of pulse (on the podium and in the band) and, inevitably, occasional lapses in ensemble. Over time, harnessing the mighty reverb of the Great Hall will allow all of the music to breathe between sections, relaxing those on both sides of the footlights as the music makes its point then moves on.
In many ways more challenging than just leading is the conductor’s ability to accompany. What luck to have cellist Denise Djokic for two works to hone that I’ll-follow-you-anywhere skill. The reading of Korngold’s Cello Concerto showed an early empathy between soloist and conductor that reduced the need for anything visual to maintain interest (the piece was originally penned for the 1946 movie, Deception). All the more reason to pull the plug on the season-sponsor graphic that—like a picture-in-picture, non-stop commercial—assailed the Great Wall of Corporate Sponsorship even as the music was trying to help us leave present-day life in the lobby.
Truly marvellous was the thoughtful and tender transition to the second movement (“Grave”). Everything clicked—the music seamlessly shifted to the fine moments of introspection to come. This kind of partnership speaks well for future collaborations. Next to conquer is balance: much of Djokic’s passagework was covered, making her literal solo contributions the highlight.
In Tchaikovsky’s famous Variations (no film required, these gems of ingenuity and passion evoke more imagery than could ever be visually enhanced), everyone relaxed, improving the “togetherness” quotient and letting the intrepid soloist have her way with the incredible technical hurdles and low-string melodic utterings. Once he’d let Ken MacDonald set the stage with a first-rate French horn solo of his own (no pressure at all with one of the finest practitioners of your instrument standing twenty feet away!), Sommerville followed like the proverbial hawk, matching her moods like a chameleon. All that’s needed is more weight in the right arm for the pizzicato to line up and more flesh from the strings to render a magically plucked chordal bed under Djokic’s stellar legato.
The choice of Beethoven’s Symphony in B-flat Major needed no explanation to the enthusiastic crowd. Chatty comments from the podium such as “I suppose you’ve all heard of Beethoven” and “this symphony came between the third and the fifth,” like the aforementioned corporate ad, should be relegated to the pre-concert lecture. The entire speech from Sommerville, delivered in talk-show style—a wireless mic having just emerged from the wings with a follow-spot—served no musical purpose. Presumably, the friendly banter was intended to establish a rapport with his new “family.”
So here’s the other side of the maestro coin. Over time, the most important draw a conductor can have is his music-making prowess. If the audience is truly moved, they’ll be back—hooked on what others have known for centuries but, seemingly, less understand today. Save the anecdotes for the parties. Dig deeper into the vastly ignored harmonic tension of the composers’ scores; find the mystery that surrounds the notion that if 100 people play a true pianissimo, the result can be softer than a dozen; actively police the rampant deterioration of dotted rhythms into lazy triplets; and, finally, conduct the music and not so much the beats.
There were just enough moments in this single performance to believe (greedily—we all want higher standards) that as Sommerville’s apprenticeship to our most universal art continues with the Philharmonic, the precarious cause of classical music will have advocates worthy of the repertoire. JWR