In recognition of the power of music to evoke memories, images, and emotions, New England Conservatory is offering a. year-long festival called “Music: Truth to Power.” As summed up by NEC’s President, Tony Woodcock, “music, among other functions, has always served as an expression and catalyst of change. It emerges from the fractures of social and cultural upheaval in many guises and with many messages—protest, outrage, quiet suffering, defiance, anguish, submission, reflection, and hope. It challenges the status quo—whether political, societal, psychological, or artistic.”
The NEC Symphony and conductor David Loebel offered a new installment in the series on Tuesday, February 11th—rescheduled from the 5th (unfortunately, music’s expressive power has little influence over dire weather predictions). The program consisted of two large works, both well chosen for the festival’s theme: New Morning for the World: “Daybreak of Freedom” by Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943) and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55 (“Eroica”). The former work is a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., via musical interaction with excerpts from a number of his speeches; these were read by the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, the first African-American governor in the Commonwealth. Beethoven’s opus, of course, is famously revolutionary both politically and artistically.
Though drawn from different speeches, many of the spoken passages in New Morning for the World will ring familiar to most people “of a certain age.” If Governor Patrick’s idiosyncratic voice cannot command the gravitas of King’s lyrical baritone, his fervent delivery quickly made one overlook the difference. A stentorian orchestral introduction led to his near-minatory first entry: “There comes a time when people get tired . . . of being segregated and humiliated.” Schwantner’s music did more than frame the speeches: it collaborated with them. As an example, King was fond occasionally of repeating a phrase a number of times, to build up emotional force (“How long? Not long.”), and this process was often mirrored in orchestral interludes with the corresponding result. The score called for a large orchestra (the stage was extended) and, in particular, a large percussion section for which one of the double stage doors had to remain open. The opening fortissimo drums and timpani tattoo was repeated more than once later on: one could imagine it evoking a judge’s gavel, people stamping in frustration, fire hoses turned on protesters, or worse. In contrast were soothing string passages—somewhat reminiscent (perhaps intentionally?) of Copland’s Appalachian Spring—around the text “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” There were stirring sounds when Dr. King called for a more equitable distribution of resources, a notion at least as relevant today as then, while a hushed reverence introduced “I have a dream” and followed it, with high strings, chimes, glockenspiel, vibraphone, etc. quietly enhancing the dreamlike atmosphere. Towards the quiet conclusion, a disembodied ppp choral sound emerged: any instrumentalist not playing was softly singing octaves and fifths wordlessly; this evocation of medieval organum was perhaps the single reference to Dr. King’s religious origins. The special experience offered us by the NEC Symphony, David Loebel, and Governor Patrick put lumps in many a throat but also inspired. The resounding standing ovation reflected our gratitude both for the accomplishment of the performers and the work’s affective power. It seems special too to hear it at New England Conservatory, of which Coretta Scott King is an alumna.
Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony made a vivid contrast to the preceding piece. Whereas Schwantner paid tribute to a martyred civil rights leader and invited listeners to draw lessons from the past, Beethoven’s piece breaks dramatically from the past and looks only to the future. After two symphonies that confirmed his knowledge of and respect for those of Haydn and Mozart, the irascible composer decided it was time to break the rules on a grand scale. In the third symphony Beethoven began to point to the Romantic era on the horizon. The excitement of this new “firebrand” phase of the composer’s career is no doubt augmented for young players having their maiden voyage with this masterpiece, but though featuring some impressive playing, the performance was, musically, a mixed bag. The first movement displayed, on the one hand, incisive ensemble and expressive wind solos, but dissonances felt “padded” and had little bite while genuinely soft passages were few and far between. The funeral march second movement got off to a vague start and needed more true pianissimos to be truly poignant. The scherzo was the one unqualified success. The pianissimos here were the real thing, making the sudden eruptions into fortissimo electrifying. The rhythm was so crisp that Loebel occasionally put his hands down and let the orchestra be a big chamber ensemble. The horn trio in the trio section were intrepid and near-flawless in their mercilessly exposed passages. The opening flurry of the finale was again a bit disorganized though on reprise it was done well. This movement too was uneven: some impressive ensemble playing but also misjudged balances, some satisfying solos (the flute, notably) but also the occasional patch of imperfect tuning.
No doubt these players will have many more opportunities to play the Eroica in other ensembles, but the highlight of this concert, Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World, was a sensitive and evocative tribute to one of our country’s great citizens. May it be performed frequently and far and wide to speak its truth to power.