BRATTLEBORO -- A colorful character out of Brattleboro’s colorful past; music composed in Brattleboro more than a century ago arranged for orchestra for the first time; a wide palette of instruments that includes parlor organ and toy piano; a significant new collaboration, this time with Kurn Hattin Homes; and great, but different masterpieces, by Bach and Tchaikovsky.
Just another day’s work for the Windham Orchestra, which opens its 44th season with a concert titled "Social Waltzes" that includes all that -- and probably a kitchen sink, too.
Under the direction of Hugh Keelan, the Windham Orchestra will perform this unique and powerful program this Sunday at 3 p.m., at the Latchis Theatre, and again on Friday, Nov. 1, at 7:30 p.m., at Kurn Hattin in Westminster, in collaboration with musicians from Kurn Hattin.
Bach’s Brandeburg Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 have the star power, but the intriguing item on the slate is the music of Frederic Palmer.
A prominent Brattleboro citizen who had a dental surgery office in town, was a lawyer and served as postmaster from 1845-48, Palmer died later in Maine under dark and mysterious circumstances that implicated his involvement in a murder/suicide.
"There’s a certain Archer Mayor quality to this guy," said Keelan.
Keelan was introduced to Palmer through a friend in town who approached him with photocopies of Palmer’s compositions.
"He waggled them in my face and said ‘You and the Orchestra should perform these,’" Keelan recalled.
It turns out, the guy was right. Initially skeptically, Keelan was won over by five waltzes and a couple of schottisches written by Palmer for social dances in town and published in 1844.
"They’re sweet intriguing little dances. I thought this would be another fascinating centerpiece for a concert," said Keelan. "They’re the music of a very skillful amateur. I thought ‘I’m going to make something of them.’ ... As I played with them, I kind of wanted to do them both straight and have a little bit of fun with them."
The fun came as Keelan worked on the orchestrations of the music and noticed what he called "fairly obvious printing errors" that didn’t seem to lend themselves to obvious solutions. So Keelan wove that uncertainly into his orchestrations, calling on the players to work things out, much as musicians for a social dance have to do all the time when getting together to play.
Fun on their own right, Keelan’s orchestrations of Palmer’s pieces invite contemplation of what it means for friends and neighbors to get together to play music and deal with confusion and differences on the spot.
In another part, Keelan has included parts for parlor organ, to be played on an Estey instrument, evoking the musical atmosphere of Brattleboro in the 1840s, when the Estey Organ Company was just getting off the ground.
The notion of musicians getting together and having to work their individual voices into a shared conversation is further explored in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, in which four distinct soloists -- Jessica Moreau, oboe, Peggy Spencer, violin, Dan Farina, trumpet, and Jacob Mashak, recorder ("flauto dolce") -- are heard in conversation with each other and the orchestra.
"There was no goal of authenticity," said Keelan, explaining that he encouraged the soloists to find their own ways of playing their parts. "We could kill ourselves trying to get to unanimity. I didn’t want that. ... They kind of intrinsically don’t belong in the same world. We’re going to relish that stuff."
The result is pure Bach, in all his beautiful, brilliant glory, but with an added layer of humanity to contemplate -- real, authentic and exciting in the moment.
It can hardly be said that Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 rounds out the program. It announces its arrival with a tremendous horn fanfare at the beginning and never lets the listener loose from there, although its moods are varied and rich.
"For me, the fourth symphony is the pinnacle," said Keelan.
and pushing it to a breathless, unforgiving finish.