In our view, the free concerts of the principal student ensembles at New England Conservatory, such as the NEC Philharmonia (the senior-level orchestra), the NEC Symphony (for lower-classmen), the NEC Wind Ensemble, and so forth, are the best bang for the musical (non) buck in any city we know of, and we’ve been to rather a lot of cities in our time. On Wednesday, November 17, before a Jordan Hall house half-full at best, the NEC Symphony put on a program of new and old music the like of which those who go on to careers in major symphony orchestras may spend the rest of their lives wishing they could replicate. Under its new-this-year leader David Loebel, the NECS took on works by current and past Boston luminaries John Harbison and Walter Piston, plus chestnuts from standard repertory by Ottorino Respighi and Felix Mendelssohn.
Opening the program was Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra, a brief tone poem that, intriguingly, antedates completion of the composer’s opera on Fitzgerald’s great novel by fourteen years (Foxtrot: 1985; opera: 1999). For some reason, the NECS program book contained no program notes other than for the Piston, so our information here comes from the composer’s own note on the Schirmer web site, here. The work begins with a big ominous passage, thickly scored, followed by a jumpy motif, and then moves to the foxtrot itself, an infectious tune (Harbison’s own) using the classic ’20s soprano sax (Adam Pelandini in a turn of John-Heldian authenticity) and tinny-clacky percussion familiar from all those old movies with “palm court” scenes. It is interesting to contrast Harbison’s period-sounding take on this idiom with that of John Adams, whose The Chairman Dances from Nixon in China incorporates the gestures but not the timbres of the dance. (Funny how operas seem to give their composers license to indulge their pop cravings.) To all these elements Harbison gives a traditional symphonic development, quite satisfactorily, before returning for an appropriately ruminative close. Loebel seemed focused on the demotic aspects of the piece and passed up, we thought, some chances to dig deeper. However, he led the able performance with spring and grace.
The first half ended with what used to be the most frequently performed works by one of Harbison’s (and Bernstein’s and lots of other prominent composers’) teachers, Walter Piston, the suite from his 1938 ballet The Incredible Flutist. Elizabeth Erenberg’s informative program note reminded us that the ballet was written for the Boston Pops — when was the last time that down-market BSO division commissioned something from a major American composer? It also explains, perhaps, the slightly uncharacteristic sweetness and mercurial gaiety of Piston’s music. The ballet scenario concerns a circus visit to a sleepy Southern town (we think that Maine Yankee Piston might not have known much about sleepy Southern towns, but let that pass), bringing a bit of sensual magic in the person of the eponymous musician. Piston’s scenario does this much more cheerfully and straightforwardly than that other great circus-coming-to-town story of the era, Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao. (And why doesn’t someone do a ballet on that, our own Miraculous Mandarin?) Piston, the man who literally wrote the book on orchestration, provided a lush score, his most endearing big tune (a 5/4 tango), and some sly nods to other composers — a “Spanish Waltz” that echoes Chabrier and a “Siciliana” torn from Fauré’s notebook. Again, Loebel was the smiling, ingratiating host, and even the literal cheerleader: Piston actually prescribed the orchestra to cheer on the “Circus March” section. The orchestra again came through with solid performances, though the massive string complement somewhat vitiated Piston’s more delicate details in the winds. Delicacy, in general, suffered in Loebel’s reading, particularly in the minuet. Katherine Althen, in the title role, and Paul Lueders, oboe, provided great sinuous magic.
The second half opened with the second of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances suites, really orchestrations (“free transcriptions,” he called them in the score) of late Renaissance and early Baroque lute pieces by Caroso, Besardo, Mersenne and Gianoncelli, not exactly household names these days. Respighi’s three AAD suites were written between 1917 and 1932 (No. 2 in 1923) and thus are somewhat similar in intention to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, but more carefully preserving the original harmony and mood — Respighi being himself a notable scholar of music from this period. With all due respect to Piston’s prowess as an orchestrator, Respighi outdid him, having studied with the 19th century’s greatest colorist, Rimsky-Korsakov. The settings are full of grace, subtlety, and charm; the finale, Gianoncelli’s Bergamasca, is perhaps the most famous number of all these suites. Whatever had been lacking in finesse in the Harbison and Piston performances was made up in the Respighi — beautiful delicate pizzicati and a smooth and charming oboe solo (Zachary Boeding) in the first movement; high-polish ensemble strumming at the beginning, and a true pianissimo finish to the second; and many other felicities throughout. The Mersenne Aria was kept moving in both senses of the word, and while the Bergamasca could have been crisper, it was given with great brio.
The closer of this relatively long program was Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony No. 4 in A major, op. 90. We think rehearsal time for this warhorse must have been stinted, as the first movement was rushed and a bit sloppy. The slow movement was better in the details, but Loebel gave little emphasis in shaping the long line of its solemn march. The beautiful and elegant intermezzo was a technical and interpretive disappointment, but the finale redeemed all: it was snappy, stylish, and admirably paced.