Yesterday’s installment commenced First Monday’s 30th-anniversary season at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. A justifiably proud artistic director and originator Laurence Lesser came before the sizable house to explain how the season’s programs will take note of the anniversary. There will be performers from the past 30 years returning, plus NEC alumni of note. All of the concerts save one will include a piece that was played during the very first season of First Mondays. This first concert included all that, while being made up of pieces that Lesser said just “made him happy.” This made for a frankly weird program that was executed with perfectly fine technique.
Opening with a reminder of the depth of the NEC bench – far more stands and chairs and percussion crowded the stage than usual, so that the student members of the NEC Philharmonia and Chamber Orchestra could initiate the festivities with Igor Stravinsky’s 50-second squib, Birthday Prelude. Written for Pierre Monteux’s 80th birthday, it is a noisy fun-house reflection of “Happy Birthday”: it actually turns out that Stravinsky’s Irving Berlinesque confection sounds a lot like Copland. Perhaps embarrassed by this not-very-fully exploited display of forces, Lesser had the students play it twice; the piece didn’t have anything to show the second time that it didn’t give away the first, but it must have been a lot of fun for the students to play, to judge by the smiling and near-laughter some of the strings displayed.
Music by Handel followed, continuing the theme of celebration with soprano So Young Park singing “Let the Bright Seraphim” from Samson. She and trumpeter Jeffrey Work are NEC alumni doing very well on the west coast, she in Los Angeles with the namesake Opera and he in Oregon with the Symphony. They flew out to join a small ensemble of familiar local faces: Gabriela Diaz and James Buswell on violin, Marcus Thompson on viola, Carol Ou on cello and John Gibbons on harpsichord, with BU master’s student Lizzie Burns on double bass. Park’s voice has presence, beauty and power; in addition, the brilliant and piercing tone produced on the highest pitches in the aria suggested an ability to be quite devastating in that range- indeed, this Queen of the Night often overpowered the brilliant trumpet. There was not much attention paid to the text, which on this occasion was an ordered sequence of excellently shaped phonemes which didn’t make much sense as English. Wood’s noble and restrained reading brought some nobility and reserve to the reading while remaining celebratory, and the ensemble threw themselves into their supporting role with enthusiasm.
Samuel Barber’s wind quintet Summer Music somewhat improbably followed, taking its place as “the piece that was played in the first season of First Mondays.” A piece that sounds mostly autumnal and melancholic to my ears (as does much of Barber for that matter), it does have air of laziness about it that suggests lounging around outside, an activity that requires some warmth (the initial tempo marking is “Slow and indolent”). It neither demands nor particularly rewards close attention, alternating between a rocking step-wise accompaniment and brief outbursts of more rhythmic and detached music. The accompaniment supported some lovely solo work, especially from oboist Mark McEwen and clarinetist Alexis Lanz, who was particularly notable for having passagework of astonishing fluidity that was still tart and playful.
After intermission we had the “Trout” Quintet by Schubert, which earned its place, as Lesser informed us, because it is “the most popular piece of chamber music.” It’s not even my favorite quintet by Schubert, but certainly its presence on the program had something to do with the large audience, which filled the orchestra and most of the center balcony. Buswell, Thompson and Ou returned to the stage, joining Pie-Shan-Lee on piano and Edwin Barker on bass. Buswell and Lee dominated: Buswell was at his most florid and dramatic, setting his bow with large gestures and entering as if it were a concerto. Lee was not as physically demonstrative, but her playing was limpid, muscular and had some elbow to it, pushing to the front in climaxes. Ou’s reading had an even keel and singing lines that had to fight to be heard; the other low strings mostly stayed out of the way. This group of talented musicians made a lovely sound and put across the Quintet effectively, though they were all playing the same piece, but not really the same game. It was an uneven performance capping an odd program; perhaps the November installment will seem more inevitably programmed with Beethoven, Bach and Elgar scheduled.