Boston, despite being such a college town, is much more fanatically devoted to its pro sports franchises than to its college teams, and we’re a bit the same way when it comes to classical music. In a city blessed with an abundance of professional ensembles and orchestras, it is easy to overlook student groups. They are never covered in the official press, and well, they’re just students. But much as college athletics can provide a high level of competition and a different way to appreciate the game, there can be something quite special about a fine student performance. And an enthusiastic student audience, like a college sports crowd, creates an atmosphere all its own.
These comparisons came to mind at the April 27 performance of the New England Conservatory Philharmonia, conducted by Hugh Wolff. NEC’s undergraduate orchestra is equal to many a professional ensemble, and its audience is one that any performers might envy – a large crowd of young people who know and love classical music, cheering wildly for their friends on stage. Amid the voluble camaraderie of the Jordan Hall audience, one really gets a sense that the music matters. (A critic also finds it hard to remain objective, just as referees tend to favor the home team.)
The program began with György Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, an early piece in folkloric style, featuring chant-like modal melodies, ebullient Hungarian dance rhythms, and barely any hint of the avant-garde pioneer that Ligeti would later become. There were multiple well-played solo turns for nearly every section of the orchestra, including a highly exposed duet for two horns, one of them offstage. Concertmaster Joshua Weilerstein balanced rhythmic drive with a light touch in the role of the village fiddler in several solo passages.
NEC string concerto competition winner Kobi Malkin followed with a commanding performance of Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. The concerto, from 1938, is more conservative in its harmonic language than many of Bartók’s other works, but it remains suffused with his characteristic abstraction of folk influences. It covers a wide range of moods and colors, including melancholy lyricism, passionate romanticism, cool irony, and raucous folk-inflected dancing, often simultaneously or in quick succession; the concerto is constantly shifting gears, turning on a dime between moods and tempos. Malkin handled these frequent smooth but sudden shifts with great assurance, finding a subtly or markedly different tone color for each of the concerto’s competing personalities. He was equally convincing in hyper-romantic G-string singing passages, silver-toned high passages with almost no vibrato, blistering runs and double stops, and everything in-between. Maestro Wolff and the orchestra matched him at every turn. Malkin received an extremely hearty and well-deserved ovation from the audience, with whoops, yells, bravos, enthusiastic foot-stomping from the orchestra, and several calls back to the stage.
The dance music continued after intermission with Thomas Adès’ suite of dances from his opera, Powder her Face. These were more consistently ironic in tone and included a blues-inflected tango that came in and out of focus, a tick-tock waltz full of extra and missing beats (in which the orchestra was briefly but noticeably unsure of itself), and a dreamy finale that ends surprisingly abruptly.
The concert concluded with Claude Debussy’s La Mer, in which the orchestra could finally let loose, reveling in Debussy’s gorgeous sonorities and full-blown orchestral tutti evoking the power and beauty of the sea. They played gloriously, and received another overwhelming ovation from the home crowd.
David McMullin is a Boston-based composer whose works have been performed by major ensembles in the United States, Europe and Asia. With degrees from Yale and NYU, he teaches music theory at New England Conservatory, is General Manager of Collage New Music, and serves on the executive board of the International Society for Contemporary Music.