in: Reviews

December 8, 2009

NESE and Cortese: From Tour de Force to Didactic

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Spontaneous applause throughout the hall accompanied voiced exclamations immediately following only the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence (Memories of Florence). So electrifying was the playing of the New England String Ensemble led by Federico Cortese, that such excitement could not be contained. Emotion and music went far beyond expectations throughout the 35-minute Russian oeuvre. Originally for a sextet, Souvenir de Florence became a tour de force with 25 string instruments at times sounding double their number in Jordan Hall on Sunday afternoon December 6.

The last movement, another dance, moved to a fugal passage engaging different sections of the ensemble in a call and response. Excitement mounted, Cortese’s arms dictating the action from arcing gesture to punctuated note, his interpretive “calls” finding the ensemble’s lightning speed responses nearly all in astonishing sync. Out of suspense emerged dancing, a big beautiful soaring coming-home theme and a maddeningly wild acceleration to make it home to a joyful noise of strings. During several fortissimos when there seemed no more volume-making was left, one more escalation spine-tingled and mind-boggled. This was musicianship and musicality at the highest level — live!

The virtuosic, the musical imagery, the Russian fervor of the music found a match in these accomplished, articulate and energized instrumentalists. Following the fourth and final movement, spontaneity had turned to outward displays of unbridled enthusiasm. Visibly out of breath and drained and with his white shirt having come undone and showing between the tails of his tux, Cortese answered the audience with repeated curtain calls, smiles and handshakes with the players.

Composer Toru Takemitsu clearly has a bead on expression, sound, craft. His portrayal of grief and unimaginable loss made life-like the very breathing of a soul in mourning. Written for violin and strings in memory of Andrei Tarkovsky, Nostalgia and the New England String Ensemble again matched up, this time recreating respiratory reaction through crescendo-diminuendo phrases sensitively scored and performed. Violin soloist Haldan Martinson, of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, played the role of the mind reflecting on fleeting life’s moments, these materialized almost invariably by phrases ascending from the vocal-like lower strings to the ephemeral harmonics high up on the top string. Martinson’s controlled range of timbres and vibrato, as well as his bell-like clarity of sound (often reminding me of the Cardinal’s birdcalls) played poetically into the Takemitsu lament. Martinson and the NESE countered each other beautifully with restraint and expressiveness respectively.

Not until reading the concert program did I find out that the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto advertised on websites was to be the less known d minor. It was a very nice surprise as I have rarely heard this concerto live. A distant relative of the well known e minor, “a cornerstone of the concert repertory, a work of grace and melodious charm, and of structural adventure, too,” and composed at age 35, the d minor was written at age 14. A marvel it is, yes, and quite unlike the later Mendelssohn. While marveling at the very young composer’s most unusual intuition and gift at composition, one wondered how the concerto might have been performed differently at this concert by Haldan Martinson and NESE—did the soloist underplay it, did the ensemble overplay it? A few upbeat notes came with a bit of biting bow but these became curiosities rather than timbral variances enriching the soundscape. Elsewhere, clean cut violinism prevailed. Some fast violin passage work felt uncomfortable against accompanying strings. Passive listening was induced. How does one pull off the adolescent’s d minor?

“I’ve noticed over some sixty or seventy years of conducting,” writes Gunther Schuller, “that the interval of the minor 2nd (semitone) and the major 7th (its octave inversion) are the most hated intervals.” He further describes his short Adagio for strings: Ode to the minor 2nd and major 7th as purposely didactic. It was.

Ed: The Gunther Schuller interview is here.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.

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