Young professional ensembles, training ground for college and conservatory students, have been making a resurgence in the area. A few weeks back, Symphony Nova gave its debut at Old South Church. Last Sunday night saw the rise of Eureka Ensemble, comprising mainly NEC and Harvard musicians, conducted by Kristo Kondakçi, disciple of Benjamin Zander. In a perfect fit, the ensemble debuted in St. Paul’s Cathedral near Boston Common, lined with old-style marble mixed with pieces of modern art, a clash of old and new sensibilities that manifested in their program: an eclectic mix of a rarely performed Respighi cycle Three Botticelli Pictures and a newly commissioned concerto for cello by composer-in-residence Stephanie Ann Boyd. It was a terrific introduction concert even if rumble from Park Street station shook the hall on occasion: never once did it throw any musicians off their game.
The hidden gem of the Respighi catalogue provided the opener. Dedicated to the famous classical patron Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (whom the program note comically turns into a First Lady, the wife of Calvin), the work frequently is overshadowed by the Roman triptych Respighi composed, but the individual movements present their own unique challenges for an orchestra who takes it on, primarily due to the subtleties of the masterful orchestration (in some ways, it reminds me of the sound world of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé). Each movement / tone poem focuses heavily on a major aspect of each Botticelli painting (printed in the program for reference), making Kondakçi’s communication of their ideas all the more engaging and powerful since he pulled it off so well. The first movement, Spring, maintained a joyous and pastoral character throughout. The textures in the orchestra, while not rapidly changing, were definitely indicative of Respighi’s training under Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the masterful orchestrators. The only complaint to be had about this particular movement is that it ended rather abruptly after stating a new idea for the first time in a way that did not feel like coda material. The second movement, The Adoration of the Magi, easily rests as the standout section. Demanding of the players with thin, chamber-music-like orchestrations and of the conductor who must see that execution of such exposed music occurs with no hitches, the movement done well can be a powerhouse to explore the inner reaches of an orchestra’s extensive color palette. Jensen Bocco on bassoon, Carlos Aguilar on flute, and concertmaster Katharina Giegling all deserve praise for their solo material. Nothing about it was easy, but in this performance everything flowed naturally when it could easily have left a musician behind.
The third movement, Birth of Venus, remained the closest the piece ever got to Daphnis territory in textures and ideas. While sometimes maintaining a more standard orchestration of the Classical period, strings providing accompaniment and winds color (something Respighi deliberately tries to reference in the cycle), on occasion the colors dip into uncommon yet extremely satisfying territory, such as the moment where the flutes double with, of all things, the cellos and double-basses. Nothing came quite out of nowhere, however; despite the more bizarre choices in orchestration, the piece never lost momentum nor ventured into experimental territory, which is why in some ways it can be likened to Ravel. As an opener, this work was easily a solid choice, both for being underperformed and as a showcase of a group’s coloristic potential.
The new cello concerto came from Eureka Ensemble’s composer in residence, Boston-based Stephanie Ann Boyd. Performed by co-founder and executive director Alan Toda-Ambaras, the work is heavily inspired by Italian Modernist architecture drawings as well as Toda-Ambaras’s Japanese heritage; both aspects are manifested in the title Tekton, Greek for “architecture”. Each movement is named after the Japanese words for the different states of water, clouds, ice, and vapor (kumo, aiku, joki), which the cello explores via its multitude of colors. Toda-Ambaras’s solo playing must be commended; the energy he brought to the performance kept attention on the work, bursting with different textures, not on him. The material, though not always difficult technically, definitely showed how the cello can be used as the primary voice to carry an orchestra.
In many ways, echoes of Philip Glass began to make their way through the orchestration and the melodic fragments. The writing never became motoric and directly repetitive as Glass would yearn for, but the sound of his voice remained a constant presence in Boyd’s writing. In many ways, however, Boyd was able to break away from those trappings, such as a larger emphasis on brass and smaller emphasis on strings (no doubt owing to technical considerations for the characteristic multilevel blending a cello can sometimes find itself bound to), in order to shift the basis of the ensemble’s characteristic sound world. One major issue, though, kept the piece from achieving higher stature, and it came through no fault of the writing: the spacious hall had a field day with the sound of the orchestra and carried it far over the soloist. Near the end of the third movement, some difficult, demanding lines from the soloist unfortunately got completely masked by the ensemble, with the only indication that something challenging was going on being the motions of Toda-Ambaras’s left hand on the cello neck, fingers dancing away.
The final piece of the night was easily the most challenging, as Kondakçi chose to conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. If a group can render this masterwork with command, carefully considering its subtleties of orchestration, and provide a substantial interpretation, they are likely to thrive. Eureka and Kondakçi passed this test with flying colors, especially when it came to the famous Allegretto second movement.
The first movement taxes all to balance the main lines without sacrificing musicality of accompanying figures, and Kondakçi managed this convincingly. The orchestra followed his instructions to the letter, communicating the crescendo near the end of the movement as though a large pipe organ, uniformly and without overemphases. The Allegretto tasks the strings to focus on blending as each section becomes emphasized in the texture through subtle motion. The string section pulled this off quite amazingly, such that Eureka’s performance of the movement is now my favorite. The third section saw the conductor move around on the podium, bouncing and doing small dances to help communicate the Presto’s character. Not what I myself would do, it communicated what he wanted to the ensemble, leading to a successful outcome where the affect of each section changes quickly. The fourth part, highly energized, closed out the top-shelf concert in an extremely satisfying way.
Ian Wiese is a graduate student in composition at NEC, where he studies with Kati Agocs.