Two seasons ago New England Conservatory applied a unifying theme to nearly 30 of its concerts. After a year’s breathing space, thematic branding has returned. While it was easy to fit appropriate material into 2011’s, “Mahler Unleashed,” this year’s overarching concept, “Music: Truth to Power,” seems to have arrived replete with a shoehorn, or maybe music director Hugh Wolff was simply off the reservation in his programming for the initial concert in the series last night at Jordan Hall. Tan Dun’s Concerto for Orchestra after Marco Polo seemed an unlikely thematic exemplar, inasmuch as the text which suggested it is widely considered to be a fabrication, and also because Tan seems content to stretch and embellish orchestral discourse rather than to revolutionize or shatter it. Likewise Brahms, whose first symphony was programmed: He was comfortable with the musical ancien régime—in the estimation of Schoenberg, he was more a progressive than a revolutionary. On paper, some subsequent events look likelier to embody the initially tenuous theme. The complete event listing is here.
After all, confronting authority is more the work of playwrights, novelists and critics than of composers. Music is more effective when it entertains us for a while and uplifts our spirits rather then when it argues with us. To expand on the theme’s subtitle, making fine music well is sometimes the bravest thing one can do.
Marco Polo (the concerto) opened with slippery slides from the brass and strings, welcoming us to Tan’s world of impressions and colors. It was written for the Berlin Philharmonic, “…with my opera Marco Polo in mind.” According to Tan, it evokes Polo’s “…geographical, musical and spiritual journey[s].” It also evokes for us Rite of Spring and Afternoon of a Faun. We heard a carnival of colors and impressions. Some of the effects such as whispers and vocalisms (seemingly on “Ah, so”), slaps, strummings and slides (the latter were meant to suggest “fading in and out of light or the dripping of ink on calligraphy paper”) recurred often enough to make listeners feel that we had discerned a structure.
The first two movements, respectively “Light of the Timespace” and “Scent of the Bazaar” were not specific or differentiated enough to divulge any connections with their titles. Yet their affect was charming, accessible and dramatic. Our ears were certainly opened to an orchestra which, even though it was standard in makeup, “…became the orchestra of a specific composer.” We imagined galumphing elephants, caravanserai, caterwauling and woodpeckers in the constantly changing mise en scène.
The third movement, “Raga of the Desert,” induced us to look east. It opened with a low pedal from the basses and tuba over which we got sinuous snake charming from bassoonist Hazel Malcolmson, English hornist Joo Bin Yi, and clarinetist John Diodati. An extended flute riff from Johanna Gruskin showed chops as well as engagement with the material.
The fourth movement was the loudest, evoking intimidating officialdom of the Asiatic sort. “Forbidden City” also seemed to recall Till Eulenspiegel in what at first appeared to be an extended coda that died away with a departing spirit. But the real ending was altogether more dramatic. After some more “Ah, so” vocalizing, and a wonderful section where the bass drummer anchored a very weird meter, the episodic extravaganza ended with exuberant frenzy.
Throughout, Wolff, who conducted the work in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, was a demonstrative conjurer and “exhortionist.” It was a real pleasure to see how the young players responded to him with open wonder and uncomplicated enthusiasm.
Whether or not Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 fit the evening’s theme, it was in many ways the opposite of the Tan. Paraphrasing Schoenberg, Wolff wrote, “Brahms [was] a composer who created complex musical structures from rigorously organized musical materials, not one seduced by atmosphere, color or flights of imagination.” I would certainly argue with Wolff about Brahms’ supposed lack of imagination, but color and atmosphere were less his thing than Tan’s.
Having heard Brahms’ second symphony at the BSO opener a few days before at Symphony Hall, I was interested in how his first might sound in the smaller and more immersive Jordan Hall. That I would consider comparing the NEC Philharmonia under Wolff to the BSO under Christoph von Dohnányi testifies to how far NEC’s orchestra program has come. Certainly the BSO played with more subtlety, and the value of the instruments in its string section lent a sheen that even one of the finest student orchestras could only dream of, but the NEC band was able to compensate with deep engagement; we look forward to hearing this ensemble at Symphony Hall in the Spring. And again, there were wonderful solos, especially from Breanna Ellison, who intoned the essential horn part with nobility. Technically there was not a moment of questionable tuning, loose ensemble or indecision. Wolff drove the piece to its destination with all of the horses pulling and snorting steam.