Hugh Wolff and the New England Conservatory Philharmonia defied the challenges of February’s fierce weather with winning performances for an impressively large audience on Wednesday at Jordan Hall. The demanding program consisted of well-known orchestral showpieces, including a piano concerto, all composed between 1894 and 1920; it was instructive to observe how differently—and how brilliantly—the four featured composers, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, and Richard Strauss, handled the orchestra even though all four wrote ballets for Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes.
Stravinsky’s Fireworks, Op. 4 (1908), was written as a wedding gift for the daughter of his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the orchestrator par excellence of his time. Its snippets of melody give the impression of proto-minimalism, though one can easily hear the influence of impressionist and earlier French music, and there is a passage with distinct reminiscences of Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, along with embryonic ideas the composer would develop further two years later in The Firebird. Wolff elicited colorful, expressive playing undergirded by vigorous rhythm.
Like Fireworks, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major of Prokofiev was written by a Russian composer in his 20s already making waves internationally. Soloist Kyle Orth, the winner of NEC’s Concerto Competition, played virtuosically, with impressively multiple facets: liquid or incisive, yearning or driven, singing or hammered, as required. The orchestra, too, delivered a wide range of colors and moods, particularly in the theme and variations of the second movement. In the finale’s slower central section, Orth, Wolff, and the Philharmonia basked in some of the most achingly beautiful music Prokofiev ever wrote, before launching the breathtaking pyrotechnic display of the concerto’s closing pages.
The only work on the program actually written as a ballet was Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose, though ironically it had been commissioned by a native French ballet company founded to rival Diaghilev’s Paris-based expatriate troupe. For the ballet, Ravel expanded his eponymous pre-existing suite for two pianos, adding a prelude, spinning wheel dance, and connecting interludes between the musical vignettes based on well-known children’s stories. The prelude, featuring previews of the various themes to come, suffered now and then from imperfect woodwind/brass intonation, but the spinning song was charming. Many of the highlights were the instrumental solos. Flutist Wooyeon Milk Yoo and concertmaster Jennifer Hsieh created a poignant mood in the Sleeping Beauty Pavane; clarinetist Dustin Chung portrayed a winsome Beauty and contrabassoonist Alexis Leon a gently grotesque Beast perhaps a bit too retiring when the two began to duet; oboist Joo Bin Yi was a sweetly plaintive Tom Thumb; in the outer sections of Laideronnette (Little Homely), Empress of the Pagodas, piccolo player Johanna Gruskin and celesta player Jingyi Han frolicked pentatonically while flutist Yoo contributed another beautifully melancholy tune in the more relaxed middle section; and in the Apotheosis the elegant playing of the massed strings and harpist Charis Chen rendered the Enchanted Garden magical, capped at the end by the stirring sound of Christopher Latournes’s timpani and Brian Maloney’s glittering glockenspiel.
The evening concluded with a very impressive performance of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28. (An amusing typo in the program had the subtitle as “in the Old Rougish Style”.) I’ll risk going out on a limb to say that musicians of college age are possibly slightly more empathetic than older ones to the famous titular rogue, a historical character from 14th-century Germany. In any case, mischievous fun prevailed almost throughout, though the sound of the strings in the opening melody (recurring in reminiscence near the end) was warm and kindly; of course, this very figure (as pointed out in Hugh Wolff’s excellent notes) was also played, greatly sped up, first by the E-flat clarinet (Matthew Griffith) then by others, as Till’s “impudent, nose-thumbing gesture.” The other motif representing Till is the famous laughing French horn call heard a number of times through the work: Breanna Ellison was flawless in execution and vivid in characterization. And much the same can be said for Wolff and the ensemble as a whole. The joyful “triumph theme” heard shortly before Till’s arrest has rarely been so galvanic in my experience while the “verdict theme” provided a chillingly stark contrast, though, even when confronted with grim authority, Till himself remained “full of piss and vinegar.” The appropriately strident clarinet of Daniel Parrette graphically illustrated the antihero’s expiration on the gallows. After a nostalgic reminiscence, the final outburst declared unequivocally that though Till’s body is dead, his spirit lives on.
On his third curtain call, Wolff curtailed the applause (an adept conductor of audiences too) to announce that due to the mind-boggling string of snowstorms Boston has recently experienced, the NEC Philharmonia had only half its usual rehearsal time for this program but had surmounted the extra challenge. The audience was more than happy to applaud another round.