Hugh Wolff, Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras and Chair of Orchestral Conducting, is a treasure at New England Conservatory. On November 4, he led a lively and exacting performance of the NEC Philharmonia, the school’s top orchestra. The program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 and Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2.
The Beethoven leans heavily on Haydn, but already the first chord shows Beethoven’s revolutionary bent. A seventh chord in the home key of C major resolves to F major, which contemporary critics criticized as a “discord.” The allegro con brio that follows the slow introduction was taken briskly, but the students were up to it, demonstrating that they were the equal of many professional groups. The large audience knew it was in for a treat. Appropriately for this repertoire the first violins were on the opposite end of the stage from the seconds. Their musical dialogue was infectious.
There were many felicities, but I will single out the second movement, whose beautiful principal theme was exquisitely rendered. Beginning pianissimo in the minor mode, the development unfolded splendidly in fortissimo dotted rhythms. Later, Wolff adapted the same tempo for the menuetto as for the trio.
Earlier in the day, the pianist Alfred Brendel, who has a short residency at NEC, had explained that Beethoven often based succeeding movements on a common theme or shape. Although he was referring to the piano sonatas, his insight became perceptible long before the symphony’s finale. In fact, it’s possible to hear the whole symphony’s themes as iinterrelated.
After intermission, we heard another young man revolutionary, Charles Ives. He composed the Second Symphony in his youth, but he had to wait until 1951 to hear it on the radio from a neighbor’s home in Connecticut, as broadcast nationally by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Its lush orchestration was enhanced by placing the cellos on the right opposite the first violins. Already, this early work has the same Ivesian grab bag of tricks, combining themes from 19th-century European masters with American “folk songs, hymn tunes, fiddle music and marching bands,” as the program notes explained.
There was a particularly beautiful, quietly accompanied, first cello solo in the Lento maestoso fourth movement, which led without pause into the raucous last movement. I’ll not give away the gag on the very last note except to say that there was incredible energy on display throughout.