Even in a city bursting with classical music performances, NEC Philharmonia concerts consistently distinguish themselves. As any Bostonian knows, NEC is one of the top music conservatories in the country, and the Philharmonia is their most senior music ensemble—read near-professional level music making, in the beautiful acoustic of Jordan Hall, for free. But it gets better! Although the students are at exceptionally high levels, the fact that the orchestra is a class taken as part of their education means that the repertoire selected by conductors Hugh Wolff and David Loebel runs the gamut of styles and eras, including much 20th-century music often missing from other orchestra season schedules.
Full disclosure: I did attend NEC as a graduate student, but as a composer and not a performer; nor have I ever written music for the Philharmonia.
This “free-range” music selection allowed for the refreshing mix on Wednesday night’s concert at Jordan Hall, which featured not only Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini Overture and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, but also Esa-Pekka Salonen’s increasingly popular L.A. Variations, written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1996.
Wolff’s great rapport with the orchestra was evident from when he first arrived in 2008 to conduct the group, which has grown in refinement every year since. His subtle changes of tempo or timbre are elegantly but strongly broadcast and, if you would forgive the term, studiously absorbed and executed.
None of Berlioz’s music is easy. Especially not the overtures, where the composer seems to try and compress the complexities and challenges of a work ten times the length into a condensed and concentrated musical landscape through which one is hurled at breakneck speed. Most of them follow a similar formal structure, and each also has similar challenges and pitfalls: fast tempi, unintuitive rhythms, far-flung harmonies, and nearly schizophrenic shifts in mood. Save for a few issues in the winds and horns, the orchestra navigated the gauntlet aptly, driving the work to its muscular conclusion with an incisive low end necessary for the bite of the eccentric Frenchman’s orchestration. Special kudos are reserved for the lovely and yet powerful oboe solo played by Christine Soojin Kim.
Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote the L.A. Variations while still at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a position he held for 17 years. Now focusing more on composing than conducting, he composed the Variations not only a musical homage to his adoptive hometown and his orchestra, but also as a vital turning point in his compositional style, when as he admits “only after a couple of years here did I begin to see that the European canon I blindly accepted was not the only truth”.
Salonen’s Variations are full of musical muscle and tender touches, bold humor and quiet introspection. The work, which has been popular among professional orchestras since its 1997 premiere, was devoured by the young musical lights of the Philharmonia. Practically a homage to the variation genre, the L.A. Variations are based not on a melody, but on two hexachords, which in turn have the ability to produce melodies.
Salonen’s writing punctuates sections of chamber music-like writing for subsets of the orchestra with monolithic tutti sections, with indications like “Big Chord I”, “Big Machine II”. While the choruses are the most fun, the chamber moments are deceptively treacherous in their writing, demanding impeccable intonation and rhythm, and in this the players of the Philharmonia did not disappoint. Even though this was the only piece of the evening for which Wolff used a score, it seemed the music was already in him, and with the orchestra members as well; this type of thing is their repertoire, and with any luck will become increasingly the repertoire of the orchestras will join in decades to come.
But still, every concert needs its chestnut, and in for a show wherein the earliest work is by Berlioz, that mantle often falls, as it did Wednesday, to Tchaikovsky. It is not that the Fourth Symphony was a poor choice (it wasn’t), but one could think of numerous less obvious things, from Schumann to Shostakovich, which might have complemented the first half more.
The problem with a piece so perennially popular is that people often hear what goes wrong more than what goes right. To be sure, there was some of both, but way more of the latter. In particular, it was refreshing to hear the wind chorale at the end of the first movement as the musical focus, rather than a harmony to the strings’ filigree. Tempi, in every movement, were altered a bit excessively but Wolff always succeeded in bringing the orchestra along seamlessly. In the second movement the effect was even compelling, giving the strains a feel of an impassioned recitative rather than a dusty love letter. The dangerous scherzo popped along effortlessly and the finale came hot on its heels – another welcome interpretation. Although some balance issues persisted throughout the movement, near the end the low brass found their lungs and the piece, before the concert ended with a 10-minute standing ovation for orchestra and conductor.