For the small audience in attendance, this was an unforgettable experience. On Thursday November 10, Jordan Hall resounded to the sounds of the NEC Wind Ensemble performing predominantly twentieth-century music: two Canzone from the Sacrae Sinfoniae of Giovanni Gabrieli, then a jump forward in time to the Nonet for Brass by Wallingford Riegger, The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams (transcribed by William H. Silvester for flute and wind ensemble), and Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum by Olivier Messiaen.
The concert began with a darkened stage: the musicians and Charles Peltz, conductor, had assembled opposite the stage in the balcony, from where sounds of Canzona II washed over the audience with a translucent clarity. The musicians then separated into two antiphonal choirs, one on each side of the balcony, for Canzona XI.
Both works play off the acoustics of large spaces. This is paced, phrasal music which allows time for reverberations to die down before a new idea commences or uses the pause to quietly launch a new phrase that grows out of the old. Bursts of virtuosic flourishes alternated with responding phrases of music. Premiered in St. Mark’s, Venice 400-odd years ago, in Jordan Hall these works communicated the same sense of majesty and grandeur. This is fitting, since the programming of these works announced New England Conservatory’s Gabrieli Project: to honor the 400th anniversary of the composer’s death, members of the NEC community are creating and disseminating performance editions for modern instruments of key Gabrieli works, and several of these pieces will be performed during upcoming Wind Ensemble concerts.
The musicians came to the stage for Wallingford Riegger’s Nonet for Brass (1952), conducted by Richard Henebry, a master’s student in conducting. This work calls for nine equal voices and opens, tutti, with a marked punctuation of the dodecaphonic harmony that is here closer to a minor-key modality. There follows a polyphony in the composer’s chosen tone-row, the Allegro leading to scherzo-like moments. Under the clear direction of Henebry, the nine musicians delivered a rhythmically precise reading of this challenging work, full of syncopations and displaced accents. Nonet retained a sense of propulsion, even as the music explores a de-centered beat. For all the rhythmic play, the work has a captivating swing feel reminiscent of 1920s urban film scores, and this performance presented that character in a very engaging way.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending (in Silvester’s transcription) brought to stage a full wind orchestra, conducted by Peltz, with Paula Robison, solo flute. The work began meditatively, the orchestra holding long tones as the solo flute took prominence. From soft playing in the instrument’s lower register, the solo line darted and swooped through the flute’s full range and dynamic compass. The pastoral music is quite intimate and reflective; one could hear a few harmonic traces of Vaughan Williams’s beloved English folk song, but here it seemed secondary to the unfettered flight of flute above the wind orchestra. Passages of call and response between flute and orchestra, or solo flute and principal flute in the ensemble, were perfect echoes of articulation and nuance. Robison evinced an effortless mastery of the flute and its technique, coupled with a keen sense of musical phrasing. Her seamless musical lines were stunning, each note growing into the next, and the whole supported by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of breath.
After intermission, the amassed forces, joined by a battery of percussion, took to the stage for Messiaen’s Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum (1964), a work in five movements. Commissioned by André Malraux, then French Minister of Culture in de Gaulle’s government, the ppiece serves as a theological summation of the composer’s belief in Christian resurrection, even in the face of two world wars. At the same, this work is a lengthy excursus on Messiaen’s musical language – piece-specific modes, languages human and animal (primarily, bird-song), different conceptions of time, a wealth of musical timbres and colors (reflecting the composer’s own synaesthesia). The work opens with Des profondeurs de l’abime, je crie vers toi, Seigneur: Seigneur, écoute ma voix!, the ominous initial chord in the brass setting the scene for a penitent’s cry from the abyss, expressed more in the woodwinds. The second movement, Le Christ, ressuscité des morts, ne meurt plus; la mort n’a plus sur lui d’empire, introduces bells to mark the passing of time, and to recall the tolling of bells for the dead. The third movement, L’heure vient où les morts entendront la voix du Fils de Dieu . . . , is more elegiac in tone, with rhythms drawn from Indian tâlas. The fourth movement, Ils ressusciteront, glorieux, avec un nom nouveau – dans le concert joyeux des étoiles et les acclamations des fils du ciel, opens with cymbals then cross-rhythms and the sound of heptatonic and pentatonic scales overlaying one another – recalling the Indonesian gamelan and its tradition of music narrating the lives of gods and men (a musical tradition known to Messiaen since the world expo in France in 1931). This movement also makes use of birdsong in more obvious ways than other movements. The finale, Et j’entends la voix d’une foule immense. . ., is again polyrhythmic and, as in the third movement, depicts the Harrowing of Hell.
Throughout the piece, there is a focus on rhythm, drawn from several world musical traditions. Messiaen mixes (liturgical) “ordinary time” and its musical equivalent (clockwork time) with the eternal time of Indian tâlas (as well as the eternity of silence, invoked on more than one occasion in this work), the cross- and poly-rhythms of gamelan music, and the composer’s own additive rhythms derived from speech, bird-song, or created. Peltz and the NEC musicians gave a coherent and expressive reading of this magisterial composition and I commend them for their heroic work in presenting this music. This is a very powerful composition, absolutely visceral in its impact (as Messiaen understood his own Catholicism), and a crucial meditation on the intersection of music and religion. This music can, and does, provoke strong reactions in its audience. Suffice it to say the NEC Wind Ensemble mastered this difficult work and resurrected Messiaen to provoke audiences yet again. It was an unforgettable concert.
Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.