By Jonathan Blumhofer
New Philharmonia Orchestra and music director Francisco Noya presented a concert Saturday night at Newton’s First Baptist Church, which consisted of two favorites by Johannes Brahms played in memory of a departed friend.
That person was Susan Kaplan, a longtime Newton resident and arts advocate who passed away in November. The evening’s program, with its mix of feisty, brooding, and consoling music by the great German composer, seemed an apt way to both celebrate and mourn a singular local icon.
At the very least, the night’s playing was fired with purpose. The NPO is a community orchestra, but it’s an uncommonly good one. The ensemble possesses many of the hallmarks of a professional group: a rich blend of voices, strong principal players, stable intonation, and – not least – the collective stamina that seems to build over the course of a work.
The orchestra’s account of the evening’s first offering, Brahms’s bittersweet Symphony no. 4, demonstrated these qualities. This 1885 score, with its tightly motivic construction, rigorous counterpoint, and austere expressive manner is as involved and challenging as a late-19th-century symphony gets.
Saturday’s reading was taut and focused. In the first movement, the violins floated their initial theme while the rhythmic woodwind countermelodies were crisply articulated. Throughout, Noya kept the focus on the musical line, judiciously balancing the ensemble to allow it plenty of room to breathe.
A strong attention to sonority resulted in a lush account of the woodwind and horn phrases at the start of the second movement. Here, again, the music was clearly delineated, rhythmically: its recurring, driving triplet figures were particularly emphatic. At the same time, Brahms’s lyrical writing for clarinet and the lush episodes for strings soared.
Noya took the third movement at an appropriately brisk clip. Some of its swirling, sixteenth-note figurations ended up a bit blurry, but, for unstinting energy and color, this was a hard performance with which to argue.
The same goes for the NPO’s take on the finale, which featured a robust account of the violins’ first theme, alongside some lovely flute, oboe, and clarinet solos. The closing bars, with their furious drive into the abyss, were among the night’s most electrifying.
After intermission, Michael Lewin scaled the heights as the evening’s soloist in Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1. Stormy yet with ruminative passages, this is a youthful piece – Brahms was just twenty-five at the premiere – but, like the Fourth Symphony, a soundly unified one, expressively and thematically.
Lewin’s account of his part was soothing and full-bodied. He brought a combination of elegance and muscle to the heaving first movement, attacking its devilish, two-handed trills/tremolos with brio, while ably teasing out the music’s songful impulses. Lewin’s realization of the movement’s noble second theme was a microcosm of the best elements of his interpretation: golden-toned, stately, perfectly balanced.
The quietly intense second movement featured more of the latter, particularly over its sequential patterns and introspective cadenza. And the finale, played at a vigorous tempo and with plenty of spirit, offered a perfectly extroverted counterbalance.
Noya led the NPO in an accompaniment that was often on the same wavelength as Lewin. There were moments of raw tone and ensemble in the first movement, but these tended to be rectified pretty quickly.
In the second movement, pianist and orchestra were, expressive and finely synchronized. And the finale, with its neatly defined fugal passage and warmly fused ensemble, proved thoroughly enlivening.