Admirable comes to mind as a way of describing this year’s Symphony Hall concert by the New England Conservatory Philharmonia with featured violin soloist Xiang Yu and Hugh Wolff on the podium on Wednesday night. Marked technical proficiency from the over one hundred instrumentalists pointed to an exceptional level of preparation on the part of these many young and aspiring students in music performance.
With all the cheering from conservatory aged sounding voices from around the hall and throughout the evening came the thought of a having a contest between that famous school in New York and Boston’s own NEC, a kind of Yankees-Red Sox type of rivalry. To be sure, NEC’s Wednesday outing up the street assured its supportive audience of all ages, one nearly filling the seats on both floor and first balcony, of an instrumental prowess to be the envy of any school in America.
And with a program containing so much talented and accomplished youth onstage combining with a college spirit usually felt on a diamond or gridiron, Symphony Hall would certainly seem the place to be. And it was, especially to learn more about this youthful orchestra with so much potential as well as about the highly touted young Xiang Yu, the soloist for the evening.
Born in Inner Mongolia, Yu eventually left for Shanghai at an early age to receive his training at that city’s conservatory.He has since become the recipient of numerous awards including first prize in the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition. Here at home, among other prizes, Yu has captured NEC’s Irene M. Stare Presidential Scholarship in Violin.
For the opener, confidence and power from the NEC Philharmonia served Ludwig van Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, op. 84 well. Quieter passages, though virtually flawless in execution, were strangely left wanting in character. Phrase shaping needed more detail for completing utterances, particularly those of the winds. Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras, Hugh Wolff, promoted precision through nippy signals. This contributed to a prevailing in-the-moment feel in the Beethoven and, later, in the Shostakovich. Power, rather than momentum, conveyed a certain thrust, one, though, not usually associated with either composer’s music.
With the Prokofiev, the orchestra felt much more at home, colorizing his Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, op. 19, each of the various sections shining. More so, these conservatory musicians played perfectly the role of a concerto orchestra. Soloist Xiang Yu is undeniably in possession of an estimable technique, and can put forth beautiful tones when so moved, as in the opening melody. In his playing of much of the Prokofiev however, expressiveness seemed at times constricted, as if he were stressing the savage in the piece at the expense of the lyrical; it did not take enough hold emotionally. His vigorous, incisive, approach sometimes produced a biting sound, but who’s to say that’s not a viable interpretation, indeed in the Scherzo movement he clearly followed the composer’s markings in making truly “ugly” characterful dramatic playing with savage down-bows played on the bridge.
As in the Beethoven, there was a similar, yet far greater explosiveness in Symphony No. 11, op. 103 (“The Year1905”) of Dmitri Shostakovich. The Russian’s behemoth symphonic picture of the uprising and ensuing bloodshed in St. Petersburg of that year—an event that took place one year before the composer was born, and, later on, about which he would frequently hear recounted by his father who witnessed the horror—unfolded only incompletely in the hands of Wolff and his Philharmonia of gifted and accomplished youth. A full grasp of this hour-long work might very well come about were there the opportunity for repeat performances.
The medieval chant-like first movement placing us in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square found the orchestra on the verge of creating the ambience that begins painting this dark and terrifying canvas. Always amazing, the instrumental technique never fell below a high performance standard. Yet, the slowly shifting sonorities, finely tuned and colored, fell short of recreating the picture. Finally, technique took a backseat when the three big builds in the Allegro movement, (The 9th of January) came about. Unfortunately, the terrifying climax, the blood bath, the last of the three builds, resulted in a din, percussion including gong were off the amplitude charts.
Pizzicato cellos and bowed violas of the third movement (In Memoriam) returned the focus on music and storytelling. The funereal reach of the strings was considerable as was that section’s integrated sound. Overall, a heavy-laden rhythm was hinted at mostly toward the end.
In the finale (The Alarm Bell), the oboe and English horn produced loveliness of line, though puzzling as musical storyline. The climax once again overshot the mark producing a blare of near-noise.
All throughout New England Conservatory Philharmonia’s Symphony Hall venture, flashes of a hopeful future of interpretive art ascended. The result of long hours of practicing alone and preparing otherwise shone in abundant evidence—the audience’s spirited support offering further proof.