in: Reviews

December 5, 2013

NEC Phil: Warm, Confident and Mature

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The New England Conservatory Philharmonia, under David Loebel’s direction, gave a performance at Jordan Hall last night that was as forthright, sensitive, and polished as any recent concert I have heard or expect to hear from any but the most renowned orchestras in the world. There was strong and inspired playing throughout, balances and intonation were near-perfect at every moment, and in all three works, in intelligence and artistry were united.

The program is a kind of tribute to the United Kingdom, singling out particularly Benjamin Britten, whose centennial this year is being honored by NEC and virtually everywhere. The lead-off offering I’d never heard before, a Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles, composed in 1948 by Michael Tippett. This five-movement work, unpretentious, expertly crafted, and refreshing, lodged somewhere between Gustav Holst and Samuel Barber in idiom. The Intrada was full of smooth fanfares, and included a carillon-like ostinato in the horns on eight permuting notes. The second movement, Berceuse in G minor, 6/8, balanced the fourth movement, Carol, in B-flat major, also in 6/8; in between came Procession and Dance, with a nicely-balanced solo group of trumpet, horn, and two bassoons on the one hand, and furiously agitated passage for strings on the other. This was really too fast for the strings to handle with clarity, and I blame the composer; I don’t think even the BSO could have done much better. But this was the only orchestral miscalculation in a lighthearted work that regularly displayed orchestral sound of admirable clarity.

The evening’s centerpiece was Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20, composed in 1940 when the composer was 26 years old. I had not heard this piece in years and never before in live performance. It was a significant rediscovery for me, and thrilling to realize what an impressive work it is: three continuous movements, an austere and even gloomy D minor that reflects the wartime atmosphere that brought it to birth, and powerful orchestral sound that manages to be deeply and unrelentingly expressive at all times. The orchestra is a large one, including woodwinds by threes plus alto flute and alto saxophone (Walter Piston’s “Orchestration” took special note of this unusual addition), two harps, piano, and five percussionists. From the very beginning (Lacrymosa), with the repeated fortissimo octave D, announced by all the low-register instruments, Death and Fate are in command. Others may not agree, but I am certain that there’s a kinship between the doom-notes of this work and the similar feeling of driving inevitability of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, composed three years before, and also in D minor; the very fast Dies irae section (Grove’s Dictionary calls it a scherzo) seems particularly influenced by the galloping rhythms of Shostakovich’s extended Development section. This section also looks ahead to the War Requiem and its breathless cavalry, twenty years later. The final Requiem aeternam returns to the D, but in an uplifting major, with mixed-mode diatonic harmonies, a lesser degree of dissonance, and a restorative upper-register wind sound that cycles back and forth in hymnlike style.

The concert concluded with Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor (Scottish), in four connected movements. Mendelssohn composed it at various times between 1829, when he was 20, and 1843, after he had begun and completed his Symphony no. 4 in A major (Italian). There’s a certain kinship between these two symphonies that are among everybody’s favorite orchestral works in the entire Romantic repertoire, not just because both are in the same key, but also because the Allegro vivacissimo finale of the Third and the Saltarello: Presto of the Fourth are full of breakneck triplets. Where the “Italian” orchestra is lighter and fleeter, the “Scottish” orchestra is heavier, darker, and richer in mixed sound. The Third calls for four horns to the Fourth’s two, and in the Third they work especially hard: as natural horns crooked in two different keys, they are filling in a lot of the harmony as well as prominent melody.

 

Others might complain that last night’s orchestra had too many strings (I counted 12-12-11-11-6), a distribution meant to give more people more experience; but only once or twice did I feel that the string sound overpowered the winds, and that could well be simply a matter of adjustment in balance. My only complaint is that the Scherzo movement was played too fast. It’s supposed to be very light and staccato above all, but these qualities would have stood out better at a more moderate tempo (Vivace non troppo, with emphasis on the latter, I think). It’s an unusual scherzo in any case, in 2/4 meter and in sonata form (like the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The soaring melody of the Adagio third movement always sounds more genuinely Italian to me than the chorale-prelude texture of the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony; does anyone agree with me on this? The more obviously Scottish qualities of the Third are harder to pin down (other than the “Scotch snap” rhythm in the Scherzo). In the first movement, the sizzling chromatic scales in the Coda are more stormy even than the Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave). The Coda of the finale begins with some of Mendelssohn’s most lugubrious textures: it begins with a melody in paired low-register clarinets, bassoons, horns, and divided violas all in unison — the real wintry north compared with Mediterranean sunshine, but no less colorful, plum pudding instead of gelato.

I cannot praise too much the warm, confident, and mature playing that these young instrumentalists constantly demonstrated. David Loebel did a very good job of leading them, but they needed no regimentation; they were a community of musicians working seamlessly together at every moment to produce not only fine sound but intelligent music. When they graduate, I hope and predict that they will find their way into orchestras like this one that can give them a living as well as good musical opportunities. We need them.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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