The New England String Ensemble delighted the audience with the first concert of their 15th season’s opening program, featuring Boston’s beloved violinist, Irina Muresanu. Performing string ensemble works by Schubert, Lutoslawski, and Enescu, NESE apparently opted for eclecticism over cohesiveness – “as I have always wanted to do with this group … [to] explore as many musical languages as possible,” conductor Federico Cortese affirmed at the end of a pre-concert talk to a modest gathering of concert-goers. Rather than disorient the audience, however, the adventurous programming kept the audience engaged, while showcasing the ensemble’s momentous stylistic versatility.
The afternoon began with Schubert’s Rondo in A graced by Muresanu’s virtuosity, musical poignancy, and stunning energy. Her sensitivity to nuance in the “Adagio” was equally impressive as her cadenzas. The orchestra also displayed fine musicianship and precision; Cortese did a wonderful job of negotiating tempi between the soloist and ensemble, with only the slightest and infrequent disagreements in rhythmic togetherness.
The audience was then jolted into a different century, a different country, and entirely different compositional aesthetic as a smaller outfit of NESE performed three of Lutoslawski’s Preludes and Fugue for 13 solo strings. The audience members who were ambitious enough to attend the pre-concert talk received an explanation of the inner-workings of the piece: including the improvisation and aleatory techniques that the 20th-century Polish composer assimilated from John Cage. While pieces in this style often tend to be accompanied by the faint moans and groans of the less modernist-tolerant portion of the audience, NESE managed to draw an incredibly positive reaction. The piece was played with resolution, shifting between moments of dark melodic lines in canon and atmospheric sound-mass. Most commendable, though, was the unfaltering intensity of the ensemble. The constant vigor and dedication of the performers is what surely captivated the audience- breaking down any stylistic prejudices.
At the energetic climax of the program was George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody, No. 1, and Irina Muresanu returned with a magnificent performance. The piece featured rampant, virtuosic, folk-inspired writing for the whole orchestra. “It is with emotion and pride that I would like to introduce… the essence of the music of my native country,” Muresanu includes in the program notes- and the emotion was truly palpable. The audience was awed at Muresanu’s playful (and impressively difficult) improvised solos, complete with extended techniques – dancing in the very highest register of the violin and knocking on the wood. The spotlight was also shared during the Enescu with violist Jennifer Stirling and cellist Katherine Kayaian, who both put on an impressive performance. The standing ovation was well-earned.
Any skepticism at ending the program with an arrangement of a string quartet was instantly disarmed at the Allegro of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet- the arrangement, after all, is that of Mahler. Though what really justified the expanded orchestration was the second movement. Federico Cortese took full advantage of the thicker sound of the string orchestra over that of a quartet, giving his most tangible display of mastery- pushing and pulling phrases in the Andante con moto into a tier of expressiveness and beauty no string quartet could hope to achieve.
After 15 years, New England String Ensemble don’t have to prove themselves to the Boston audience, yet they continue to do so. Mark your calendars for November 22nd and 23rd, when NESE will team up with the Boston Children’s Chorus and harpsichordist Mark Kroll to give us more outstanding performances.
Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area.