The challenging program conducted by Hugh Wolff on Saturday night at Jordan Hall was a preview of what New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra will play in its upcoming tour to Argentina. Co-music director Wolff deserves a lion’s share of the credit for a concert that far exceeded my expectations. The first thing one noticed about this pre-tour band was its enormousness: 16 first violins, 14 second violins, 11 violas, 14 cellos, 7 basses—an army of strings. I recommend the balcony of Jordan Hall with its great sightlines for watching such a stage-filling group and for its renowned sound, which was quite intense and immersive, especially whenever the brass played.
Except at Tanglewood, I had never heard a youth orchestra. And I had never seen Hugh Wolff conduct, although I had wanted to, having enjoyed his recordings. So, a lot was new to me, but not to the adoring parents, judging by the ubiquitous but prohibited video cameras.
The concert opened with Osvaldo Golijov’s (b. 1960) Last Round, a hypnotic work in two movements for double string orchestra, whose title is borrowed from a short story about boxing by Julio Cortazar. Golijov writes that he saw his composition as “an imaginary chance for (Astor) Piazzola’s spirit to fight one more time,” as Piazzolla died in 1992 at the peak of his creativity. Last Round is conceived as “an idealized bandoneon” with two movements resembling a “sublimated tango dance” (for which Piazzolla was renowned). The concertante-alternation of the massed strings with smaller ensembles of just the principals was expressed in urgent-sounding, sometimes dreamlike intensity and abandon; the tutti ensemble and soloists really stayed the course.
Completely reseated, to admit the voluminous wind, brass and percussion sections, the orchestra then gave a striking performance of a suite from Act III of Wagner’s 1867 opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Prelude, Dance of the Apprentices, and Finale.). This gave the audience a chance to experience the excellent winds and fabulous low brass, all of whom were even more impressive in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique which followed. What a vast collection of talent!! Wolff’s nicely paced conducting was simply superb, with clarity of gestures and baton, and convincing ideas about tempi. The orchestra was marvelously prepared, and quite confident and enthusiastic in its execution.
But when Berlioz’s colorful masterpiece is on a program, it eclipses everything preceding, and I often felt I was hearing it anew; Wolff’s conducting was that good. In the first movement, Réveries-Passions, Wolff’s tempi and the orchestra’s polished playing dramatically overwrote my previous hearings.
The harpists, having not touched their instruments in the long first movement, are called on in the second to played several tricky licks in a fast tempo; it is terrifying (and often an audition piece). Clara Wang and guest Hope Wilk nailed their parts—brava!
Throughout the five movements, Wolff kept things moving nicely with bold gestures and fine details. The English horn, so essential to this piece, was played offstage and onstage with distinction by Derek Wong. The winds alternated so that two people got a chance to play principal. The two principal clarinets deserve mention—HyukJoo Hwang and Moon Sun Yoo, as do the two principal flutes—Juree Kim and Hyo Jim Park, and two principal bassoons—David Flournoy and Jay Rauch. (Also playing in the bassoon section was Thomas Novak, NEC’s Provost and Dean. Deserving major kudos is the percussion section, which, along with the brass section (with several guest players), made this Symphonie Fantastique utterly spellbinding. The four bassoons impressed immensely, and then, of course, there was the indefatigable army of strings which responded to everything Wolff asked for with unflagging enthusiasm.
Bravo to all in the orchestra and a huge bravo to Hugh Wolff . . . .