The last shall be first in this review, since this writer can’t delay his gratification in recounting the NEC Philharmonia’s topflight traversal of La Mer in Symphony Hall last night. Year after year Hugh Wolff recruits and nurtures fine contingents for New England Conservatory’s orchestras; this one showed accomplished strength across every section and in every solo riff.
To begin with, I was astonished by how the string sections each took on the quality of a single organ. Each grouping of individuals performed a common task with uncommon unanimity and singularity of purpose. If one sits in the front rows of Symphony Hall one usually hears individual string players projecting proud personalities and sometimes distinctive takes on pitch. Not so last night. Each section spoke with an uncannily singular voice. No discernible weakness manifested itself among the 120 or so players on the extended stage.
Debussy the colorist and mythicizer transported us to a Golden Age of orchestration. Unlike the works that preceded it on this program, seemingly artifacts of their own times, La Mer represents an inspired and groundbreaking departure from its compositional locus. In Wolf’s impressionistic watercoloring, pointillistic daubing, and craggy striving, line, shape and destination never lost focus. The execution was overwhelming.
Leonard Bernstein said that he was thinking of Platonic ideals when he penned his diverting Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, but the crater-of-wine aspects of symposia seemed to inspire him most vividly. Yes, though, we could imagine the ancient dialogues now occurring between orchestra and soloist and among the sections, the duet between the violin soloist In Mo Yang and cellist Jonah Ellsworth stood out as perhaps the most Socratic. The serenade well and truly diverted, but also remained very much an artifact of its time and place, transporting us no further than to the composer’s shtick of Sharks, Jets, and Cunegonde. Yang brought elegant and inviting glamor to dignity and quiet confidence; even in the rare virtuosic flights, he never hectored. On the Joachim Strad, his tone could throb with emotion, dissolve with bittersweet nostalgia, and sway in a Viennese hoedown. The judges in the 2015 Premio Paganini certainly got it right when they awarded him top colors.
The concert opened with the world premiere of a co-commission (with the Nashville Symphony) celebrating New England Conservatory’s 150th anniversary. Not content with merely a festive overture, Aaron Jay Kernis delivered a massive, honest-to-goodness symphony “containing the entire world.” Chromelodeon, his Number 4, made a tremendous impression. The composer did not stint in any way, not in size of orchestra, complexity of meaning, or generosity of expression. “Out of Silence” opens as tuned percussions evoke a musical dawn of creation. The viola choir mournfully searches, the winds ponder before a martial tutti erupts. Wrathful trombones give way to a return to a quiet veiled odyssey. Ingenious, almost contrapuntal interludes unfold as Germanic sentences, verbs at the end. One thought of Thomas Mann. Lively ideas morph quickly, but with enough familiarity to ground us. Another big crescendo, and then a pianissimo close with solo piccolo.
As “Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom” begins, potent footfalls menace. Then a string quartet intones the movement’s subject, a Handellian aria. Continuous development, or processes like it, ensues, in 10 variations which never depart entirely from allusions to Handel. Something is always happening, frequently forcefully, although Kernis’s vocabulary includes relaxation. The gory giant thunders by, near the end, attempting to crush the theme before it finally disintegrates, mistily.
Most like an occasional, celebratory piece, the short last movement, “Fanfare Chromelodia”, carries whiffs of an academic festival. New melodies emerge as other pass; themes give quarter and surrender; jazzy attitudes grow complex. A big unison across octaves told us “final cadence comes here”.
Could Kernis have asked for a more expert premiere of his emphatic Fourth? No, he told BMInt, he could not have imagined a more propitious birth. The composer’s comfort in the term “symphony” is justified by his large and confident addition to the genre. This one looks to have long and shapely gams.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer