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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

New Bedford Symphony Orchestra begins its 2018-19 season with Fung and Mahler.

 Bridget Kibbey takes a bow after performing Vivian Fung’s harp concerto with the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra. Richard Van Inwegen photograph

Bridget Kibbey takes a bow after performing Vivian Fung’s harp concerto with the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra. Richard Van Inwegen photograph

The New Bedford Symphony Orchestra’s opening night performance Friday evening at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center had two works, but one clear message: Things will be different now.

With the first in a season-long series programs featuring female composers—here, Vivian Fung’s harp concerto, paired with the expansive Mahler Fifth Symphony—the NBSO staked a claim to being an ensemble that leads the way in contemporary programming. 

Orchestras across the country are becoming aware that the imbalance in gender representation in the concert hall is alarming, and is threatening the relevance of classical music performance. Steps must be taken to infuse the terrific work that already exists from women composers into the mainstream repertory. 

With music director Yaniv Dinur’s programming this season, the NBSO will hopefully set a standard for other orchestras. The exclusion of women in the concert hall will no longer be tolerated.

Harpist Bridget Kibbey performed Fung’s concerto. The performance itself had its ups and downs—Kibbey broke a string during the first movement, and had to take a break to replace it before continuing. But Fung’s concerto brought a back-of-the-orchestra instrument to the front of the stage, illuminating the possibilities of the harp as a solo vehicle.

The concerto has bold ambitions, realizing some and missing on others. Fung invokes folk melodies in the first movement (the work has three, normally played without a pause). The principal melody comes from a Thai folk tradition, based on another plucked instrument—the chakhe, similar to a zither—and features a scale, descending from high to low. 

The orchestra was stripped down to strings and percussion (versatile playing by principal Tom Schmidt). The smaller instrumentation helped balance the sound, although Kibbey showed off the impressive power of the harp throughout the performance. 

Fung takes many approaches. One was to have the instruments mimic the soloist—melodies and gestures were often passed between Kibbey and the strings. Another was to imitate styles: at several junctures Kibbey strums the instrument, sounding like a Spanish guitar, and in another she and a quartet of strings play a gypsy melody. 

And in different places during the final movement, Kibbey weaves paper between some of the lower strings, preparing the harp to sound like a low bass instrument. She accompanied these passages by knocking on the wood of the instrument—sounding like a rhythm section all by herself.

The concerto fails to capitalize on its momentum, and the finale spends much of its time distractedly exploring dance-like rhythms before rushing off to a conclusion. Ending aside, the work—and Kibbey’s performance—established a strong precedent for the harp as a solo instrument not only with grace, but of power.

Programming a Mahler symphony may not sound like an innovation; however, programming a breathtakingly ambitious work like Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a major step for this orchestra. More than an hour long, in five movements that each have multiple moments of intensity, Dinur showed he will not back away from challenging his players.

Any appraisal of this daunting symphony fails to capture its many moments of despair, striving and triumph. The first movement alone goes from funeral march to carnival grotesqueries to languid lyricism. 

The horns play exposed lines and challenging parts throughout—from the first, introductory triplets sounded by principal trumpet Andrew Sorg. All the horns and winds played stoutly throughout the symphony—especially principal French horn Lauren Winter.

Dinur worked hard to maintain dramatic musical tension through the long work—no easy task. Many moments had clarity. A particularly intimate section stood out: a pastorale interlude in the Scherzo, introduced by Winter, leading to a delicate, pizzicato quartet. There are not that many quiet moments in this symphony, and this one cast many of the bold, dramatic sections into a clearer light.

The NBSO’s next program will be Holiday Pops on Dec. 15 and 16 in the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. For information and tickets visit www.nbsymphony.org or call the Z box office at 508-994-2900.

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