in: Reviews

November 6, 2009

Two Revolutionaries Beethoven and Ives from NEC Philharmonia

by

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.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

2 Comments

  1. I was just about to post my own review of this concert, when I saw that Larry Phillips beat me to it. While I agree with his evaluation, there were a couple of points about the concert on which some dilation is merited.

    First is that the concert proper was preceded by a brief ceremony in which NEC conferred on Alfred Brendel an honorary Doctor of Music degree. It’s hard to imagine anyone who better deserves such an honor, or who would more enhance the honoring organization by his acceptance of it.

    The second relates to the Ives, which was my impetus for attending the concert. I have not heard a live performance of the Ives Second for quite some time, and Wolff’s take was full of Ives’s sparkle, impish humor, tenderness and courage. What I heard was a near-perfect marriage of detail and big picture. Even Ives’s early, relatively conventional, works are tough to play—lines keep breaking off abruptly, requiring perfect ensemble; and Ives’s penchant for simultaneous diverse musics, for example slow-moving chorales against quicktime fiddling, take keen attention. These Philharmonia students have the chops, and Wolff made no compromises in exposure or pacing.

    The Second Symphony was among Ives’s earliest forays into quotational music, but like the first string quartet, arrayed within the conventions of Romantic harmony and traditional forms. He creates truly symphonic, developable themes by stitching together bits of hymn tunes, popular and patriotic songs (“Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” figures large in the symphony), and snippets from the classical repertoire, all to signal the multiple inputs to a truly American musical consciousness. To their enormous credit, Wolff and the Philharmonia kept all these strands intelligible both in their parts and their cumulative impact. The wind, brass, and percussion sections received well-deserved call-outs in this big, complicated work, the true “New World” symphony.

    There were a couple of inaccuracies in Wolff’s program note on the Ives, in which he repeats certain bits of Ives legend that aren’t really quite as commonly portrayed. Both pertain to the slow movement, where one quotation is erroneously called “America the Beautiful,” but which Peter Burkholder has pointed out would be an anachronism, since Katharine Lee Bates’s words weren’t set to this tune until after Ives composed the symphony, and therefore could not have influenced the rationale for his setting the tune. The other has to do with the closing passage of this movement, where many people think Ives is quoting Beethoven’s Fifth, which Ives did rather a lot, but in this case the folks who say that are missing Ives’s musical pun, since the same sequence of pitches opens Zeuner’s hymn tune “Missionary Chant” (Ye Christian heralds), admittedly with one “extra” note in the pickup. The horns, who have the tune here, continue past the first four notes with a few more that are unmistakably Zeuner, not Beethoven. Not a big issue here, but it’s a record that should be set straight whenever one has the opportunity.

    Comment by Vance Koven — November 6, 2009 at 1:51 pm

  2. Always a pleasure to read the reviews here. Informative discussion. These NEC concerts are great for the money, yes?

    Comment by Boston lowbrow — November 7, 2009 at 2:12 am

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