A modestly attended free concert on Saturday evening, Nov. 21, by the Boston Conservatory’s able String Orchestra presented a thoroughly prepared quartet of works. Two of these are staples, one was a première, and one is rarely heard outside of the German-speaking lands.
Six Rumanian Folk Dances by Béla Bartók began this brief — fifty minutes! — and concentrated program. Each of the five string sections acquitted itself most honorably in solo statements with which the composer punctuated each movement, clearly relishing the fine state polish to which conductor Yoichi Udagawa had brought them. Concertmaster Thomas Hoffmann, a natural in his core role, brought off his sunlit solo with a centered and wonderfully dark tone, never succumbing to the nervous vibrato that squeezes the beauty out of such orchestral writing, even in professional bands. The one lacuna, an important one, was the puzzling lack of Central European tuning and accent. Rumanian, Slovak, and Hungarian folk arrangements inhabit a spicy soundscape of pure, vinegary, and bland intervals, especially in cadential moments, that become intuitive as players immerse themselves in the modal, harmonically powerful language. The tuning throughout the Bartók clung to conventional Western European homogeneity, sidestepping the enticing challenge of ethnic flavor and pungency.
The best playing of the evening was in a haunting Intermezzo, Op. 8 (1900), which Austrian native Franz Schreker (1878-1934) wrote in his auspicious twenties. This brilliantly gifted composer, with contemporaries such as Szymanowski, Novák, Schönberg, Stenhammar, and de Falla, squeezed the last generous cépages from late-harvest Romanticism, even as they moved beyond conventional tonality and tried to do the advance guard — Debussy and Mahler — one better. Breathtaking freedom of lyrical and harmonic mobility is a hallmark of this feisty, innovative group. Composers of that 1870s-80s generation were profoundly engaged in the crafting of new musical language as Europe became mired in the early years of the Great Depression. Their polyglot badinage between pointilesque tonality and atonality was curtailed when the cordite-laden breezes of the mid-1930s whipped red-white-black flags over Konzentrationslager and expanding armies. Schreker, a prolific opera and symphonic composer and eleven-year head of the Musikhochschule Berlin, was among those swept away as the chill soubriquet “entartete Kunst” began to be bandied about by the new jackboot governments. One comes across his exquisite orchestral and vocal works regularly in German-speaking Europe, but performances on this side of the pond are unusual.
The evening’s première is one of 38 or so orchestral sketches currently being written by Boston Conservatory faculty member Andy Vores (b. 1956). His Fabrication 22: Earful gently milks possibilities (not all of them, for this is relaxed music) offered by a single rhythmic and intervallic idea. The language floats in comfortable tonality, its pleasant few dissonances dabbing mustard onto the neatly browned surface of this string lagniappe. The appreciative crowd applauded it warmly.
Despite the crackling pace of the concert, it was still a surprise to suddenly arrive at the concluding Respighi. His Third Suite of Ancient Airs and Dances (1932) is more restrained in orchestration and affect than the earlier two (1917, 1924). The four movements derive from the late 16th-early 18th-century scores then being lovingly resurrected across Italy: lute solos by Santino Garsi da Parma, a Ludovico Roncalli guitar piece, and songs by lutenist Jean-Baptiste Besard. Under Mr. Udagawa’s direction, the string students played whimsically and tastefully with tempi, voicing, and some nicely judged dynamic contrasts.
Northeastern University’s Fenway Center, a defrocked Protestant church a block from Symphony and Jordan Halls, had extended rather many of its acoustic dampers, but the very high ceiling and generous outward bulge of the transept imbued the string orchestral sound, bolstered by a no doubt necessary acoustic shell, with depth and clarity. This is a pleasing venue for large ensemble music. The room flatters chamber music with piano nicely, as well. There were no program notes, a real shame.