in: Reviews

November 7, 2014

NEC Phil Relaunches Kirchner

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Paula Robison (file photo)

Paula Robison (file photo)

The NEC Philharmonic’s world premiere performance of Leon Kirchner’s retouched version of his charming Music for Flute and Orchestra arrived at Jordan Hall Wednesday with the popular Paula Robison and her gold flute.

There could have been no better way to hear this new version than with Robison as soloist and Hugh Wolff conducting the expanded orchestra. Together, they spent “many intense hours this summer,” Robison explained in the program notes, “sorting out the corrections” and consulting with others. “Finally we were able to say that we had recaptured the wildly beautiful work so that we could release it to sing again.”

And sing it did, with evocations of birdsong and passages that swing almost like big bands. I concur with Robison, who says she found color, passion and poetry in the writing. As the flute glided above, the brass flew “like eagles, soaring and swinging through the air.”

Robison took evident pleasure in the music, rocking on her feet and smiling, at times looking off trance-like into space, and applying her superb technique and lovely vibrato to Kirchner’s music. Wolff, who had studied alongside Kirchner at Harvard, “understands the spirit of Leon’s creative output in an extraordinary way”, she wrote.

Originally written in 1977 for Robison, the work was performed before being engraved. Kirchner’s “minuscule and barely readable handwriting” caused the score to languish until Kirchner revised in 1994; it underwent another round of amendments in 2004. Only since Wolff agreed to tackle the manuscript and get it engraved has it emerged as a generally available concert piece. It is sure to find receptive new audiences.

The concert also included two orchestral works with unusual histories. Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal is frequently performed around the world but rarely understood as a self-standing composition rather than an introduction to a stage play or opera. Barber merely sought to reflect the humor and character of the original Richard Sheridan comedy.

Barber was only 21 when he completed this overture, his first full-length orchestral effort. Hugh Wolff successfully conveyed the “wit, charm and just a dash of contemporary edginess” that Barber intended.

And yet, with all that fine music in our ears, the true highlight of the evening was a hyper-familiar Franz Schubert Symphony in C Major, the so-called Great Symphony. Conducting from memory and singing discreetly along, Hugh Wolff seemed totally subsumed in the music.

He brought the NEC Philharmonic to the highest standard for this sweeping composition, a work that Schubert never heard performed. From the initial bold horn statement of the theme to the rollicking finale, I felt I was hearing something new. The brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion converged to deliver something beautifully translucent and musically coherent.

Watching Wolff is always part of the experience. Here he danced, crouched, stretched and dug deep with his stick to make this performance his own. The players locked eyes with him and exchanged smiles at certain moments.

It seemed to me that the third movement, the scherzo, gave the strings their greatest workout—perhaps the part that caused the problems in London in 1844. Felix Mendelssohn attempted to introduce an edited-down version of the work to a London audience but the orchestra rejected it as so difficult to be “unplayable”.

Wolff gave a nod of support to his student players by writing in his notes, “What was deemed unplayable two centuries ago is now standard fare for the young musicians on stage tonight.”

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.
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