Lalapalooza, lallapalooza, lollapalooza — spell it as you wish, on Wednesday, September 29, the New England Conservatory Philharmonia with Hugh Wolff conducting certainly achieved “something superior… unusual” and became “an outstanding example” as Webster’s would have it. The program: John Adams Lollapalooza, Beethoven Symphony No.4 in B-flat major, and Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. The performers: 100-plus young students having just returned to begin a new school year. Much of the symphonie fantastique came with boundless energy, the autobiographical program of the composer’s passions ultra-unleashed. With Beethoven often came the tightest of precision and a marked classicism, for Adams a completely American manifestation exuberantly driven. Only a few other unordinary moves raised some questions.
Some of the most unusual sounds found their way into Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath) where obvious — even youthful — sliding, buzzing, and slapping from different instrumentalists dotted the movement, thereby heightening the black funereal picture. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold) as played by these well-dressed, focused and accomplished Conservatory students earns still more admiration for that inner and outer trip through “horrible visions” they conjured. (The composer describes dreaming that he has killed his beloved and is about to lose his head.) So physical and brutal were the hallucinatory moves in both of these movements I felt, at times, that it was I who was marching and dreaming. The triumphant and the heroic in Berlioz, in fantastic fashion counterpointed darker forces, the NEC brass leading the way. A low trombone note buzzed below the orchestra, emerging to great effect.
Un bal (A Ball) went the way of a fleeting waltz. Mr. Wolff’s idea of contouring the melodic moves into elegantly formal dance gestures was also unusual, becoming a thing of symphonic beauty. I caught more of this leaning in the slow third movement, Scne aux champs (Scene in the Country), and especially in the opening movement of Reveries (Passions). For me, in both these movements, a classical ideal suppressed the Romantic beckon. I believe that may be another reason why the emotive and physical March and Dream impacted so greatly. A full house recognized Philharmonia’s feat with excited applause.
The more you hear John Adams’ six-minute orchestral work written “for Simon,” the more you may recognize this composer’s genius. He completed Lollapalooza in Berkeley, California, November 2, 1995, and just eight days later, it was first performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle. Jazz riffs jam pack the score of his lollapalooza. And it was almost a lollapalooza from the NEC Philharmonia. Dynamic imbalances, though, reduced interplay with the woodwinds in key passages such as their high-speed swirling scales that race toward the end of the composition; here, the low brass came on too strong, even bringing on a bit of fatigue. Despite these shortcomings, the Philharmonia propelled Adams’ syncopated and looped layers into a most blissful space.
Light, quick, and clean-cut might best describe my take on the Philharmonia’s respectable rendering of the Beethoven Fourth. By light I mean that its performance moved along, happily extoling discreet blends of winds and strings, hearty crescendos, sudden shifts in dynamics, brief solo instrumental appearances, and orchestral tuttis. There was unusual quickness about its interpretation. Observing Mr. Wolff’s body language, particularly when he walked to and from the podium, might explain, at least in part, such rabbit-like rapidity. The adagio and scherzo movements, while being clean-cut, came up short of speaking due to a sameness of articulation (most noticeably the accompaniment’s many duplet figures in the second movement).
I find it hard to believe that conservatory students and Hugh Wolff can produce so much from formal elegance to brute physicality. Their concerts are free. Get there early or you won’t find a seat in the house.