Difficult? Well, this January 20th concert’s breadth of challenges would faze almost any orchestra, and might have this one as well, one which comprises instrumentalists ranging in age from 13 to 18 years. But that particular difficulty didn’t apply. Though stretched at a couple of points, this wonderful ensemble soared past almost all of its technical issues. Inspired playing abounded.
The difficulty, known by all present in the hall and keenly felt by every young player on stage, was not the music, but the missing presence of their mentor, the person who had rehearsed them, encouraged them and ultimately inspired them, their long-time leader Benjamin Zander, whom circumstances had forced to leave the Conservatory, as anyone who has read the news lately knows. You could read it on these young faces as they came on to the platform Friday night. Some looked tired, some sad, some dejected, some numb. Yet, there they were, on stage, ready to give what they could to a program of wonderful music. And, give they surely did.
The program that Zander had planned and rehearsed, which remained intact, was to open with the zippy and virtuosic Overture to La Forza del Destino by Giuseppe Verdi. Instead, the orchestra members decided to play, conductorless, the “Nimrod” movement from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This orchestra has a long history with this particular piece. For years, at the end of the final concert of the orchestra’s season, Zander would proudly introduce to his audience those “senior”(!) members of the orchestra who were graduating and moving on to the beginnings of their professional careers. After these introductions, the orchestra would then end their season with “Nimrod,” leaving nary a dry eye in the house as a result.* As one might imagine, the associations for these players – the piece itself, so rich and moving, the composer, so purely British-sounding – and, of course, their conductor, himself British and so inspiring to them – were strong and compelling. At the time of Friday’s concert, I was unaware of this ensemble’s “history” with this music and was amazed with their ability to bring it off so well without a leader to guide them. Later, of course, aware of the recent circumstances, I was very moved by this tribute. Knowing now of the players’ familiarity with this music, it makes their homage to Zander all that more poignant.
But it was also evident that these players were ready to move on. Two estimable members of the NEC Orchestra Conducting faculty were deputized to lead each half of the original concert. Hugh Wolff, the Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras, NEC College, led a fiery reading of the Verdi overture, and an equally thrilling performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67. Each performance made no concession to the tender years of these players. Wolff’s tempi were brisk and demanding, exactly right from my point of view, and the players rose to the occasion with inspired musicmaking. Particular kudos are due to oboist Kelly Alexander, who played the famous cadenza in the Beethoven’s first movement with remarkable aplomb and beauty of tone, and to Sarah Purdy, clarinet, and Jacob Thonis, bassoon, each of whom brought clear-headed concentration and lovely timbre to their playing. Konrad Herath led a heroic ensemble of French Horns, and Jonah Ellsworth brought commanding concentration and section unanimity of sound and purpose to his leading of the ‘cello section. The progression from the Andante con moto movement through the Scherzo Allegro and its elided Allegro finale reminded me why this fabulous symphony is so justly popular. What an amazing construction it is! Special bravos go to Maestro Wolff, whose short-notice direction inspired such a committed performance. And, bless him, he played the fourth movement’s rarely heard exposition repeat.
After intermission, David Loebel, Associate Director of Orchestras, NEC College led two movements from Michael Gandolfi’s seven-movement The Garden of Cosmic Speculation and, for good measure, Claude Debussy’s La Mer.
The two Gandolfi movements – “The Zeroroom” and “Soliton Waves” – impressed with this composer’s usual high-minded creativity and energy, and made one want to dash on-line to order Robert Spano the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s CD of the entire piece. I haven’t always been this taken with Gandolfi’s work, and it was heartening to see him in the audience, attentive and appreciative of the hard work this ensemble put forth in realizing his music. He seemed quite happy with the results, as did the audience, which gave him a strong ovation. Though the YPO made this music “sound easy,” this was tricky and demanding repertoire.
The evening came to an atmospheric and brilliant close with a finely paced reading of Debussy’s La Mer. Maestro Lobel led precisely and clearly with many an encouraging smile to his players. Though by now fatigue surely must have been weighing upon them, they rose to the occasion with a remarkable performance. The famous cello divisi section of the first movement was played with uncommon rhythmic accuracy and beauty of tone, and the woodwinds played with flexible fluidity and attention to detail. The huge string sections (19 first violins, 20 seconds, 17 violas, and 16 ‘cellos) were attendant to every nuance urged from them by Debussy and Maestro Loebel. And what a plush sound they made!
Perhaps inclement weather contributed to the surprisingly small audience size? Bostonians need to come out and support this worthy ensemble in greater number than were present this past Friday. These players deserve all the support they can muster. I was amazed to learn that the NEC Preparatory School, of which the YPO is the elite ensemble, sponsors ELEVEN separate orchestras! New England should be very proud of its remarkable Conservatory.
Leaving Jordan Hall, I remarked to my concert companion that events such as this renewed my tottering faith in “the younger generation.” Go next time (June 1, 2012 – FREE admission!), and hear for yourself – you’ll be very glad you did.
* Special thanks to Ellen Pfeiffer, NEC Public Relations Manager, for this detail.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 31 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.