in: Reviews

May 6, 2009

Unusual Pieces Chosen for Mendelssohn’s 200th Birthday Celebration at NEC

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The New England Conservatory celebrated the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth on May 4 at Jordan Hall, as the final performance of the 24th season of their “First Mondays” concert series. (Previously this season, the series had honored the birthdays of Messiaen, Puccini, Carter, Haydn, and Purcell.) NEC Artistic Director Laurence Lesser, remarking that he looked to program chamber-music pieces that were seldom heard and performed in concert, chose Mendelssohn’s Nocturno for Winds (sometimes performed under the title Overture for Winds), excerpts from Mendelssohn’s four-hand piano arrangement of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his Quintet No. 2 in Bb Major, Op. 87.

The Nocturno for Winds (1824), performed by a student ensemble of 11 musicians and led by conductor Hugh Wolff, was an exciting introduction to Haydn’s compositional style, exhibiting both his ability to write slow, lyrical, cantabile melodies and in the more accented, march-like style with heavy reliance on the horns and staccato articulation. This piece featured the ensemble’s ability to work together – their blend and balance throughout this performance was remarkable, with each instrument lending its particular color and timbre to the unified whole. Standout musicians included Benjamin Smolen, whose flute melodies and runs weaved effortlessly in and out of the ensemble’s musical offerings, and oboist Amanda Hardy, whose piercing tone effectively emphasized the tension and release (consonance and dissonance) aspect of her role in creating this musical atmosphere. I urge you to look out for members of this promising group of young musicians in the future.

Originally arranged as evening entertainment music for amateur pianists, Mendelssohn’s piano four-hand version of his famed incidental music A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a faithful reduction of the orchestral piece, but leaves much to be desired nonetheless. If one was not already familiar with the orchestral version of this piece, perhaps the four-hand arrangement would be more exciting. Though pianists Randall Hodgkinson and Leslie Amper performed their chosen excerpts very well, the piece itself is lacking in depth. In the four-hand arrangement, it is more difficult to make out distinct characters and settings, so Mendelssohn relies heavily on different textures, dynamics, pedaling and other articulation. The pedaling was occasionally too heavy in the duo’s first and second excerpts (the first being the famed Overture), which seems a bit understandable when there are only a limited amount of means to achieve orchestral power on a piano. Hodgkinson and Amper’s best presentation was the third excerpt, the Scherzo. Both pianists approached their contributions with great sensitivity and agility to produce lyrical lines, coordinated accents, and unison crescendos; and perhaps most impressive of all was Amper’s ability to smoothly finish Hodgkinson’s fast run of notes without missing a beat. Though this selection illustrated Hodgkinson and Amper’s pianistic skill, perhaps another piece would have been a better choice to feature Mendelssohn at his compositional best.

After the intermission, established musicians and teachers Miriam Fried, violin; Annie Rabbat, violin; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Paul Biss, viola; and Paul Katz, cello, gave a strong performance of Mendelssohn’s four-movement Quintet No. 2 in Bb Major, Op. 87 (1845). These musicians proved their skill as an ensemble through their accurate unison passages, lyrical phrasing, crisp articulation and group crescendos. Especially striking was the quintet’s ability to listen to each other’s playing and contribute selflessly in support of each instrument in turn when featured. Fried led the ensemble with great authority – her agility and rhythmic accuracy (especially in the first movement, an Allegro vivace) were always controlled and kept the ensemble on point. Fried was also featured in the Adagio e lento third movement, with her smooth playing of high notes as part of a lyrical legato melody. Taking almost no break between the third and fourth movements, the final movement, notated as Allegro molto vivace, reinforced the strength of the ensemble, especially in their capability to play as a unified voice. Occasionally during this movement, the violas were lost a little in the balance between the violins and the cello. Nevertheless, the ensemble presented a beautiful rendition of this Mendelssohn quintet.

Second violinist Annie Rabbat, appearing to have essentially the entire piece committed to memory, focused on playing in exact coordination with first violinist Fried and other members of the ensemble – Rabbat’s unisons and interactions between her lines and those of other instruments were astonishingly accurate and contributed greatly to the sound of the ensemble as a whole.

The almost 30-minute performance of this Quintet went very quickly; the ensemble (and composer) created such an atmosphere, drawing in the audience, that time passed in an instant. This group of musicians provided an excellent example for the students in the audience of how a quintet performance should sound.

Elizabeth Perten is a doctoral student in Musicology at Brandeis University and also is pursuing a Joint MA in Women’s and Gender Studies. She graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University, with a BA in Music

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