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A Force for Music Education Wears His Other Hat: Cortese and New England String Ensemble to Perform Tippett, Vivaldi, Purcell, Benjamin, Britten.


Conductor Federico Cortese is very well known and valued for one niche in classical-music Boston — teaching serious music students; but he is not adequately recognized in another, as Music Director of New England String Ensemble. His upcoming NESE concert on April 17 at Jordan Hall should help rectify that. The program includes Sir Michael Tippett, Concerto for Double String Orchestra; Antonio Vivaldi Stabat Mater; Henry Purcell, “When I am Laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas; George Benjamin, Upon Silence; and Benjamin Britten, Simple Symphony. Mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims is soloist in the Vivaldi, Purcell, and Benjamin.

For the program notes Cortese wrote, “Choosing a concert program is a rather enjoyable process that often results in some unforeseen fruits. The connections among the pieces of tonight ended up being, on many levels, even closer than I had imagined.  Like some other programs we performed this season, this program is a little journey around the baroque style. The other clearly noticeable common element in today’s varied repertory is that it is an almost entirely British concert, featuring mostly music written by very young English composers. … To break this British monopoly I inserted one of Vivaldi’s most beautiful sacred pieces. … A certain meditative depth and sadness are common to all the vocal pieces in the program and, I think, create a vibrant contrast with the rhythmic energy and liveliness of both Tippett’s and Britten’s music that frames them. After all, concerts, as all musical compositions, are built on the dialectics between affinity and contrast.”

Catherine Weiskel, executive director of the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, when asked for her opinion of Cortese as music director of that organization, responded immediately, “That’s pretty easy. I have enormous respect and admiration for him. He transformed this institution in the last 10 years. We now have by far the largest budget and one of the most comprehensive programs in the United States. The orchestra now is at a completely different level than when he took it over. The kids adore him. I don’t think they would give him the level of commitment they do if they didn’t admire him. He identifies with the kids because that’s the kind of kid he was.”

Federico-Cortese-2wThat’s true. At age five, he joined a boys’ choir, and later he studied voice, composition, and conducting at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. From 17 to 23, he sang early music as a professional baritone and countertenor, but also could sing tenor. In addition, he played the oboe and studied piano.

His parents are not professional musicians; his mother was an antiques expert and his father taught medieval history and law. (Cortese also has a law degree from La Sapienza University.)

Sharon Malt, former board member and still active supporter of BYSO, also had an immediate response when asked for her opinion: “I love him. He’s passionate about music.”

We hear he shouts, sometimes.

“Yes, he yells at the kids,” Malt laughed, “but they are not threatened by it. They respond. They love him. They even have a kind of nickname for him: The Fed.”

Last year, “The Fed” was also appointed Music Director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. During intermission of his first concert as conductor in October, students were asked what they thought of him. The most commonly heard description was, “Fabulous.”

“He really takes us through the paces. We are learning a lot,” said one. An article by Victoria Ascheim HC ’10 (a notably talented percussionist for the orchestra) in Harvard Arts, an on-line in-house journal, noted “Maestro Federico Cortese paves his aspirations for us as an ensemble.”

Effectively teaching serious music students, whether they intend to pursue professional careers or a maintain a life-long side interest, is a strong point of  Cortese. But it’s not the only one.

After taking over the New England String Ensemble during a rocky period and working hard to re-establish its credentials as a major music force in Boston, Cortese has molded a fine group. Repertoire has become both more interesting and more challenging. The program for April 17 is a case in point.

Music critic Steven Ledbetter, in the program notes, has written of the Tippett,

The Concerto for Double String Orchestra is Tippett’s first mature work for an ensemble of more than chamber-music size. English music had seen a rich tradition of string orchestra pieces, going all the way back to Handel’s concerti grossi and including their twentieth-century echoes in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, and Benjamin Britten’s recent Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. … The character of the concerto, especially in its fast outer movements, resembles a wrestling match in which strongly contrasted themes are pitted against and then complement one another. … The upper strings of the first orchestra, playing in octaves, are ranged against the lower strings of the second orchestra, also in octaves. Neither of these two themes heard in the opening bars follows a simple rhythmic pattern; each has its own complex syncopations against the beat and against the other line. The independence of these lines and the rhythmic variety both come from Tippett’s close familiarity with Renaissance music, though here pressed into a level of energetic activity that would not have been conceived four centuries ago.

for the Vivaldi Stabat Mater,

The text … is a poetic depiction of the Virgin Mary’s painful experience of watching her son die on the Cross. … Of the many settings of the Stabat mater over the centuries, this one by Vivaldi is the darkest and most somber, moving always in slow tempos and in the keys of F minor and C minor. The only touch of brightening comes on the very last chord of the piece, which finally offers an F major. … Following its performance in Brescia in 1711, the Stabat mater remained forgotten and unperformed until … the composer Alfredo Casella (who had been conductor of Boston’s Pops concerts in the late 1920s) brought the work to light again, once more suggesting that Vivaldi’s religious commitment was deeper than had previously been thought.

<p>Chris Carroll photo</p>
Abigail Nims (Chris Carroll photo)

of the Purcell Dido and Aeneas,

Few composers have ever shown such inventiveness in creating music that expresses the emotions of the characters in memorable musical phrases and at the same time expresses the language in which it is written in such a way as to make it at once audible and clear to the audience. (Virtually every composer of the last three centuries with a reputation for setting the English language clearly and effectively acknowledges having studied the works of Purcell.)  Dido’s lament is one of the great examples of a genre in which Purcell excelled, the ostinato aria, in which a short musical phrase is repeated over and over in the bass line, while the voice sings a soaring melody that (in the best examples, such as here) seems to unfold freely over the seemingly restrictive bass. The entire 17th-century, which saw the invention of opera, has only a few examples to match this one in expressivity.

and of the Britten:

The Simple Symphony has established itself as a genial and unpretentious masterpiece of charm and wit whose composer need not adopt the Petrarchan stance that it was composed “by a different man than the one I am now.”

Benjamin wrote of his own composition, “Upon Silence sets Long-Legged Fly, a late poem of Yeats which portrays three momentous figures in history absorbed in silent contemplation: Julius Caesar planning a crucial military campaign, Helen of Troy as an adolescent in Sparta, and Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. The verses are set in a syllabic manner, while each successive chorus is set to increasingly lengthy melismas as, like the long-legged fly above the water, the voice hovers above the strings’ now turbulent, now still stream of sound.”

Bettina A. Norton, executive editor of Boston Musical Intelligencer, admits to a strong bias. She is vice president of the board of New England String Ensemble.

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