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Conductorless NECCO Needed Oomph


The New England Conservatory Chamber Orchestra presented an imaginative program at Jordan Hall on February 16, with Arensky and Stravinsky bookending a double-bass concerto by Vanhal that featured soloist Tony Flynt. As always, the ensemble, of which Donald Palma is artistic director, was unconducted.

Anton Arensky (1861-1906) is today best known as the composer of a wonderful piano trio and as the butt of a cruel prediction by his former teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, that his music would sink into oblivion. Rimsky-Korsakov may have been miffed that Arensky switched musical allegiance from the Russian nationalists to the “internationalists,” of whom Tchaikovsky, Rubenstein, and Medtner were among the leading figures. In any event, Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, op. 35a, for string orchestra, from 1894, is a strong indication of his mature proclivities. The history of this piece is a bit complicated: it is an orchestration of the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 2, op. 35, but there was an intermediate step, in that the quartet was originally scored for the destined-for-oblivion ensemble of one violin, viola, and two cellos. Op. 35a was originally a re-scoring for conventional string quartet, from which Arensky drew the string orchestra version (which by rights ought to be something like op. 35b, but it’s too late to edit his editors).

The tune he used for his variations was “Legend,” no. 5 of Tchaikovsky’s op. 54 Songs for Children, which either Tchaikovsky or the public must have liked, as its composer made various arrangements of it. The melody is somber, folk- or church-like with modal elements, and to our non-Russian ears a bit dull. Arensky applied to it a range of variation techniques that never rise to the originality of, say, Brahms’s or Elgar’s (to say nothing of Richard Strauss’s) “character” variation methods. The first two variations stick close to the melody in the lower and upper strings, respectively, with increasingly florid accompaniment. The melody then ducks underground while a variety of articulation and rhythmic effects are applied, though throughout it insists on sounding more like Tchaikovsky than anyone else. The works ends rather abruptly on a brief coda that began with some nice harmonics, but left us waiting for something to follow. The NECCO’s strings were all perfectly in tune and in synch, and made lovely sounds, but there were times we wished the players had put more muscle into it and prepped us better for the ending.

Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813) was a Czech contemporary of the Haydn brothers, a virtuoso violinist, and a participant in what must have been one heck of a string quartet in 1780s Vienna with F.J. Haydn, Mozart, and Karl Dittersdorf. Concertos for double bass have never been exactly thick on the ground, and Vanhal’s Concerto in D major from some time in the 1770s (it was not published in his lifetime) is his only exercise in this combination, out of many dozens of concertos he wrote on top of 100-ish string quartets, 70-ish symphonies, and a whole lot else, and is therefore a welcome rarity. NECCO presented it with NEC Masters student (yet fully fledged concert artist) Tony Flynt. The concerto itself is much in the leftover-Rococo style of 1770s Haydn, with the orchestral parts largely deferential to the soloist. The writing is pleasant, vigorous in the fast movements (and bouncy in the finale), lyrical in the slow. Vanhal was known for dramatic touches in his orchestral writing, but in this case everything was poured into the soloist’s, which could be breathtaking, largely written for the singing upper registers with the occasional surprise downward extension. Flynt was confident and bravura, and in the somewhat Gluck-like slow movement allowed himself plenty of vibrato. There were, interestingly, two cadenzas in this concerto, the second being in the slow movement. We don’t know whose cadenzas these were, but they were dynamite, and Flynt tossed them off with aplomb (mostly).  Apropos of the orchestral playing, we found ourselves with the same reaction in the Vanhal as in the Arensky: all was copacetic on pitch, rhythm, and phrasing, but we were a bit let down in the oomph department. This may be a drawback of conductorless performance; there was no one to crack the whip. At the end here, as in the Arensky, some form of emphasis was needed but not forthcoming: a ritard, a sforzando, something.

Where the ensemble was clearly on top of things was in the final work, the 1947 revision of Stravinsky’s 1927-8 ballet Apollon musagète, or, more properly for the revised version, Apollo. This was one of Stravinsky’s earliest neoclassical hits, commissioned by that universal muse Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for a music festival in Washington in 1928. The score, for thirty-four string players, is fitted out as a theme and variations, which makes it eminently suitable for concert performance. The prologue is smartly dressed as a French overture in the Baroque style, with a snappy dotted rhythm (NECCO could have added a bit more snap here, but all the rest of their playing was superb), built on a leaping motif. The theme (built on the same material) and variations characterize and sometimes combine the principals, Apollo, god of music (among other things) and his troupe of muses — Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore — who are under his tutelage. The music is ravishing, the string sonorities calming the sometimes brittle affect Stravinskian neoclassical implies when using winds (think of the Octet for Winds, for example). In fact, one got the sense that this work, more than any other of Stravinsky’s neoclassical works, set the stage for all the most common effects used by later composers: one heard proto-Poulenc, proto-Britten, even proto-Sondheim! But as well, in the “Pas d’action” among Apollo and all the muses, there are elegant Tchaikovskian touches in a kind of valse triste.

As stated above, NECCO lavished great care on this and came across with a superior result. We wish to note the lovely solo work by concertmaster Yoo Jin Jang and cellist Tony Rymer. As it happens, NECCO will be performing the Arensky and Stravinsky on Thursday evening, February 24, on Cathy Fuller’s Live from Fraser segment on WCRB/WGBH-HD, so those with an interest can tune in to or stream these for themselves.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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