“And I didn’t even play a note,” NEC President Emeritus Laurence Lesser quipped in response to the applause as he took to the stage to introduce the 31st First Monday at Jordan Hall season. With the venerable auditorium filled almost to capacity, the series founder thanked the NEC faculty and alums who have so long been performing for no compensation other than dinner with him. Then he listed some quick statistics from the past 30 years: 175 concerts, 137 composers.
Most of the works performed at First Monday concerts have been in the decidedly comfortable Western canon, and Monday’s lineup of Bach, Brahms, and Sibelius provided no exception. The opening offering, the 4th Brandenburg Concerto, would have fallen on the polite side if not for the indomitable trifecta of flutists Paula Robison and Renée Krimsier, and violinist Ayano Ninomiya, a new addition to the NEC faculty. Ninomiya deftly careened through the violin solos with articulate, sinewy phrases as Robison’s and Krimsier’s flute lines intertwined around her in enchanting ribbons. The ripieno group’s groundwork was slightly connect-the-dots for the first two movements, chords landing incongruously heavy under the soaring soloists, but it took on a more satisfying shape in the vigorous Presto that concluded the piece.
Four of the conservatory’s vocal faculty then performed Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, op. 52, with collaborative piano professors Tanya Blaich and Cameron Stowe vividly illustrating the stormy Romantic images in the four-hand accompaniment. Lesser warned the audience that tenor Bradley Williams was suffering from congestion, but if not for the omission of the voice-testing “Nicht wandle, mein Licht” from the end of the piece, few would have guessed; his diction was clear and pitches accurate, even if his delivery was on the stiff side. (If we go by visible passion, “O die Frauen” could have been about refilling a CharlieCard.)
Baritone Michael Meraw was difficult to discern even when singing solo, save for the invigorating beginning of “Schlosser auf!”, and he was almost completely inaudible when singing with the other artists. The piece truly belonged to the ladies; soprano Lisa Saffer’s silvery voice zipped through the air as naturally as one of the “little birds” that German Romantic poets so adore. (Four show up in these Waltzes, if you count a nightingale.) Mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser cut deep with a devastatingly beautiful “Wohl schön bewandt war es,” her dark crimson tone making even Daumer’s maudlin poetry sound poignant and beautiful.
Awkward discrepancies in tuning and style pervaded much of the Sibelius String Quartet in D Minor, “Voces intimae.” The rarely performed, profoundly personal piece was perhaps not the best choice for the pastiche faculty quartet of faculty (Donald Weilerstein, violin; Ayano Ninomiya, violin; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Yeesun Kim, cello). The four struggled to agree on a tone color in the perpetually morphing first movement Andante – Allegro molto moderato, and the electrifying sixteenth-note interchanges of the second movement Vivace were dulled and tentative. This often counterintuitive quartet demands its players act as a unified organism, breathing and thinking as one, but at times, four soloists seemed to be on stage. Still, Kashkashian and Kim’s low register was consistently savory and strong, and Sibelius’s central Adagio di molto sounded crystalline, especially during a stream-of-consciousness violin solo from Weilerstein. With more time to establish rapport among themselves, the star foursome could have delivered a whole just as sublime.
The next First Monday concert includes works by Schubert, Nielsen, and Schumann, to be performed at Jordan Hall on Monday, November 2.