Under guest conductor Stephan Asbury, the NEC Philharmonia raised the Jordan Hall roof tonight with a program that emphasized the immense energy a young orchestra can generate. All of the works had moments that demanded overwhelming sound and force which the orchestra supplied without any strain. The opener was Detlev Glanert’s Prelude No. 1 from Three American Preludes (2014), a work I encountered this summer at Tanglewood. While the NEC’ers didn’t quite manage the exuberant obnoxiousness I recall from that performance, it was certainly noisy enough, and in the warmer confines of Jordan Hall I could attend more closely to the alternation and layering of Glanert’s materials: a hyperactive fanfare, a moody melody halfway between Bernstein and Mahler, and some spiky, rhythmically tricky lines. Not entirely a thinking person’s piece, it nevertheless proved a reliable curtain-raiser that held the mind from moment to moment, and served to showcase the preternatural accomplishments of the students.
Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin suite kept up the momentum while also digging deeper. In the grim story of the original ballet, a girl is forced by a trio of thugs to entice men to come to her. The first to be ensnared is old and has no money, so he is beaten and sent away. The second is young and a spark rises between him and the girl, but we soon learn he is also penniless and thus is also dispatched violently. The third, the Mandarin, is old and wealthy—they try to mug him, then they stab him, but he refuses to die until the girl succumbs to his desire, at which point he begins to bleed and then expires. To comprehend this music, no plot is required, but it does prepare one for the alternating structure of hot outburst and cool seduction and sets ones expectations for the underlying fury and anger that simmer constantly under the surface. The brilliant and forceful score gave the NEC woodwinds a platform to shine: clarinetist Matthew Griffith’s long solos of sidelong temptation were a focal point, but the entire section played with concentration and unity of expression. The final music, depicting the violent pursuit of the Mandarin, was breathless and exhilarating, although at times the orchestra nearly overpowered the hall, and the loudest climaxes could be wince-inducing.
After intermission the Philharmonia tackled the Dvořák “New World” Symphony; its familiarity demands something more than technical brilliance to illuminate it, and perhaps predictably, while the execution did the composer no disservice, neither was it particularly revelatory. The first movement was most convincing, and its ending was as thrilling as any of the many climaxes that came before. English hornist Nicole Caligiuri intoned the famous melody from the slow movement with dignity and without sentimentality. But the third movement lacked precision and substituted speed for drive, and by the final movement the reliance on boisterousness and volume was growing tiring. Throughout the evening Asbury kept the tempos on the brisk side, and the readings were matter-of-fact: no posturing or distortion, but also very little lingering; moments
where the music might take a breath were rare. That the Philharmonia is still a student orchestra, albeit a fantastically advanced one, was most evident in the cautiousness of the interpretation. Nevertheless Dvořák’s music was competently served and the audience reacted rapturously at its conclusion. The players might want to discuss their presentation, however: despite the shouts and cheers from the audience, quite a few of the string players wore expressions that suggested they were being reprimanded rather than fêted. It is early in the season, though: perhaps both their reactions and their music will loosen up as the months go by. In fact, the next concert is only a week away, featuring the Schumann Piano Concerto as well as a work by Pulitzer-winner David Lang.