Hugh Wolff took the podium at Jordan Hall with the New England Conservatory Symphony on March 3 in a program featuring one well-known crowd-pleaser (the Brahms Serenade No. 1, op. 11) and two works by the once-ubiquitous and now less familiar British composer Sir William Walton, his youthful Portsmouth Point Overture and his mature Violin Concerto, the latter featuring NEC student and rising prizewinning star Tessa Lark as soloist.
Walton (1902-1983) is best known today, perhaps, for one very brash work of his brash youth, the crackling Façade, and for the work that bespoke his break with that early “smart-set” brittleness, his 1929 Viola Concerto that is today for violists what the Mendelssohn concerto is for violinists. In between came the Portsmouth Point Overture, written in 1925 as a musical impression of the bustling and bawdy scene depicted in Thomas Rowlandson’s 1811 etching. Rowlandson had actually done an earlier, much soberer, take on this prospect, but the later one is what is best known today, and is what Walton clearly had in mind. The overture, as ably and frenetically articulated by Wolff and his crack student band, is a non-stop orgy of high spirits in a jazzily dissonant (mild by today’s standards, of course) idiom, punctuated by occasional passages that foreshadow some of the “imperial” (“Colonel Blimpish” might be the cheekier term) tropes that adorn Walton’s later film and orchestral work. Wolff kept all the balls in the air and lit up the evening, if a bit breathlessly.
The focus of the evening — which was self-evident, but reinforced by NEC President Tony Woodcock’s manically chipper radio blurbs for it — was on the Walton Violin Concerto, completed on commission from no less than Jascha Heifetz in 1939. By then Walton had largely shorn himself of his “what’s the next article” associations, which didn’t, um, sit well with the downscale 1930s; he had, by virtue of his Viola Concerto, acquired a distinct strength in a kind of wistful, melancholy jollity that he exploited further in the new Violin Concerto. External circumstances also bore on this tone, as World War II loomed and literally came between the composer and the work, whose première in the US (intended for Boston but in the event held in Cleveland) he had to miss because of danger in the sea channels. In fact, the original score and parts went down with the ship on the way back to England.
The piece itself, it has been said, owes something to the structure of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto, with a moderately-paced opening movement followed by a brief and furious scherzo, and closing with a type of synthesis of these. Be that as it may, this form of presentation suited Walton’s already developed esthetic. The opening Andante tranquillo presents a pensive tune in the solo violin with a little turn at the end, which becomes significant in the development and as a returning item in the finale. There is a second theme that is first stated lyrically and then more briskly; the development starts with a bang but reverts to the prevailing mood. The solo violin is active pretty much throughout, and takes a fairly brief cadenza as part of the development, like Mendelssohn, but in an even more integral way to the movement. The middle movement, Presto capriccioso alla Napolitana, is a demonic tarantella-inspired scherzo whose driving theme summarily overrules any attempts to soften it into a waltz-like paraphrase. The trio, whose tune later forms the basis for the finale, is gentler but not really relaxed; the main section’s return puts paid to any hope for respite. The finale begins somewhat like the Viola Concerto’s—a soft, wistful march based on the scherzo’s subsidiary theme; but Walton digresses more for martial and virtuosic flourishes here, which somewhat mars the esthetic integrity of the work.
Ms. Lark, a tall, slender Kentuckian, took instant command of the solo part, with a rich, plummy tone somewhat reminiscent of David Oistrakh, and a powerful sound even in the most ethereal upper reaches of harmonics and ordinario. As a winner of numerous competitions and prizes, she is already becoming widely known; but she is definitely one to watch. Her approach to the Walton concerto, matched by conductor Wolff, was to play it big, bringing out whatever bravura content could be found. This works up to a point, but we found inadequate contrast and insufficient attention to the balance between the work’s driven and somber sides. Nevertheless, Ms. Lark produces an impressive sound, and Mr. Wolff’s direction and the orchestral playing were equally robust.
After intermission, while snowflakes filled the later winter air outdoors, we were treated to a whiff of Spring in the form of Brahms’s rustic, genial and easygoing Serenade No. 1. The piece as a whole (together with its companion Serenade No. 2, op. 16) is Brahms’s confession of faith, so to speak, in the ideals of Classical masters. Coming hard on the heels of his thunderous Piano Concerto No. 1, this work teems with bows to Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven. The first movement, cast in sonata form, can be read as a proto-symphony, which seems to be what Wolff had in mind. However, one needs not to ride that too hard, and the conductor, perhaps still wound up from the Walton, stressed the Romantic drama of the piece, not always to best effect (he also declined the exposition repeat, which saves a couple of minutes but compromises Brahms’s exquisitely balanced structure). So too, the dark and mysterious first scherzo, with dapples of light in the outer sections and golden rays in the trio, seemed a bit too massive. Things got much better beginning with the Adagio non troppo, and sailed then through the self-consciously antique Menuetto, the galumphing Beethovenian second scherzo, and the rollicking, bouncy concluding Rondo. Wolff expertly kept the sonic forces balanced yet surging, and the players responded with gusto. Brahms strongly emphasized wind parts in this piece, further homage to the Classical wind-band tradition, and the NECS wind and brass sections received special applause for their work—most particularly principal horn David Vaughan, who was spot on in the treacherous solos in most of the movements.