The New England Conservatory’s NEC Philharmonia, an orchestra of very talented students under the direction of Hugh Wolff, gave an extraordinary concert in Sanders Theater, Cambridge Friday evening, February 4th. Julia Glenn, a gifted violinist and the winner of the NEC/Harvard Concerto Competition, played Stravinsky’s 1931 Violin Concerto in D Major with wonderful panache and accuracy. Wolff and the orchestra opened the concert with the Shostakovich Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70, and closed it with Ravel’s 1912 Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé.
This venturesome program is worthy of any major professional orchestra. To hear it played so cleanly, with grace, élan, force when required, and virtuosity, by students on the cusp of a professional career was salutary and admirable. Throughout the evening, Wolff, who conducted almost entirely from memory, led his musicians with extraordinary, readable clarity, so clear that there could never be a doubt in any player’s mind exactly what the music expected. I hoped that these young musicians knew how lucky they were to have him as an exemplar of the conductor’s art. Surely not every conductor they will face in their future will give them as much to go on as Wolff offered them Friday.
It says something that this ensemble chose to open its concert with the Shostakovich Ninth. This symphony, often misunderstood as a lightweight palliative to the “heavyweight” symphonies that precede and follow it, is anything but easily tossed off. It is a mysterious and quite deeply emotional work, full of treacherous challenges for every orchestra section. The woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion all have their moments “in the barrel.” Particularly memorable playing was heard from piccolo artist Alyssa Griggs and trombonist Ross Holcombe in the Symphony’s first movement, and flautist Martha Long and clarinetist Randolph Palada in solo and duet in the second movement. The heart-wrenching cri de coeur bassoon solo, which interrupts the bustling Scherzo, was superbly played by Luke Olaf Varland. His essay of this wailing lament was a highlight among many in this endlessly fascinating symphony. Maestro Wolff led with precision and authority, setting ideal tempi throughout. Although his choice for the final movement’s romp to the finale was so brisk that some rapid articulation was sacrificed, certainly no excitement was lost.
After intermission, violinist Julia Glenn, gowned in a stunning confection of red, pink, and sparkles, was welcomed on stage for the Stravinsky Concerto. Glenn already enjoys an international career. She has played at Carnegie Hall, collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, and was the first-place winner in the 2010 Alexander & Buono International String Competition – all this as a Harvard student junior majoring in linguistics with an emphasis on Mandarin Chinese. She also studies with James Buswell (himself a Harvard grad) at NEC through the joint Harvard-NEC A.B./M.M. program. Obviously, this is one talented – and very busy – young woman.
The choice of the Stravinsky Concerto for this concert was interesting. Was it hers? This wonderful work, not heard often enough, abounds with some of Stravinsky’s most elegant music. It runs the gamut from spiky, spunky and challenging asymmetric meter-stretching writing to what surely must be among the composer’s most lyric and songful music, gloriously spun out in the Concerto’s third movement, the exquisite Aria II. From the outset Glenn was totally involved in her performance, fully focused, and betraying not one whit of insecurity, playing with energy and gorgeous tone. Wolff and the Orchestra were with her all the way, resulting in a memorable and thrilling performance. I wished I had the opportunity to have heard it again, right on the spot. Brava! Keep an eye out for this gifted musician – she would seem to have all the means necessary for a splendid career.
The nonpareil Ravel Daphnis Second Suite filled the stage with added harps, percussion, and that woodwind rarity, the richly-toned alto flute. Again, Wolff commanded an interpretation which was refreshingly clear and straightforward, with none of the stretching and manipulating other interpreters often bring to this pellucid score. The opening Daybreak section rippled and flowed with audible precision heard from celeste player Alex Zhu and harpists Maria Rindenello-Parker and Drew Cryer. The sun rose with a crescendo of pure glory and led to the famous flute solo which in the ballet accompanies Daphnis and Chloe’s miming the tale of Pan and Syrinx. Pamela Daniels was the creative, individualistic and breath-blessed flautist. The ensuing Danse Générale was appropriately Dionysian, with only a fleeting moment or two of carelessness that perhaps betrayed a bit of understandable fatigue.
This concert was played throughout at an extremely high level of precision and budding artistry. It was a very real tribute to the depth of talent and training offered to these students by the superb faculty of our rightly much-admired New England Conservatory of Music. May these young musicians live long and prosper. The world needs talent like this to evolve to the better place it should become.
This program, with one major and intriguing change, will be offered again on Wednesday, February 9, at 8 pm in Jordan Hall. The formidable Russell Sherman will replace Julia Glenn as concerto soloist, playing a work one would not immediately associate with him – the Gershwin Piano Concerto.
Note: the author sincerely hopes he has correctly attributed the many solos mentioned. The program book was his guide.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 31 years.