Neoclassicism is a pesky moniker. It’s a highly contextual term, dependent as much on the time when it’s used as what it’s attached to. The New England String Ensemble’s Saturday night concert, on April 4 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, featured music from several different time periods. All were different in sound, but undeniably neoclassic.
The concert was designed to herald the upcoming Ballets Russes Festival 2009 in May and was partially funded by the group.
The program was framed by Tchaikovsky. It opened with Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky by Anton Arensky (his op. 35a). Arensky was a contemporary of Tchaikovsky, but the writing could have come out of the First Viennese School. It was the sort of piece that got up, looked out the window, and decided not to go outside today.
The closer, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, op. 48, received the strongest and gutsiest playing of the night. The ensemble clearly had lived with the music. While their intonation was inconsistent across the rest of the program, here they made the hall ring. Tchaikovsky’s neoclassicism was primarily a surface feature. Classical structures help propel the action (the first movement is a “pezzo in forma di sonatina”), but the narrative style is his own.
Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète is grossly underrated among his ballet scores. The (theoretically) Dionysian string orchestra is deployed in service of the god of reason and the muses. Federico Cortese’s tempo choices kept up the momentum, but he seemed a little too intent on maintaining a whiteness of surface. The conductor and players alike deserve credit for their navigation of the coda’s tempo and meter changes.
The real oddball on the program was an arrangement of the first movement of Nikolai Tcherepnin’s op. 11 string quartet. The (excellent and informative) program notes suggested it was meant to give a broader picture of Russian music, but it felt out of place more than anything. The dialogue between parts exemplified the “four intelligent people conversing” ideal that makes the genre so exciting, but it didn’t respond well to the large ensemble treatment. The performance, however, did pique my interest in hearing the rest of the quartet.