What a gift the NEC Philharmonia with its charismatic conductor Hugh Wolff and NEC’s beloved Laurence Lesser bestowed on a packed Jordan Hall Wednesday, wherein Lesser co-feted his own approaching 80th birthday with extraordinary playing of Bloch’s Schelomo! Those who worry that classical music will become extinct can breathe easier after a concert like this one, which ranged from ethnic to cantorial to hepcat with flourish and excitement.
Sensemayá, an emotionally impressive interpretation of a poem by Nicolas Guillen by the short-lived Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, took my breath away with its depth. Revueltas’s tone poem is lush, tragic and primitive, reflecting other music of the early 20th century, but with a distinctly New World flavor. As a doctor, I love both the Guillen poem and the music, which tells the story of a shaman who sacrifices a snake to the god of pestilence and illness. The melody moves through unusually featured winds—tuba, horn, E-flat clarinet, and muted brasses, and, accompanying it, spectacular percussion abounds.
There are many musical quotations in Ives’s Three Places in New England, published in the most widely-known version in 1935. For the widely disparate places—The St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common (bas relief of Shaw’s black regiment), General Putnam’s Camp (in Connecticut) and the Housatonic at Stockbridge—the orchestra crafted contrasting moods that Places demands, with mastery, if at times with a more than a modicum of youthful exuberance.
The already electrified audience positively crackled in anticipation of Lesser’s reading of Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque for violoncello and orchestra. Lesser, who presided over NEC from 1983 to 1996 and has been teaching there for close to 45 years, is a consummate musician, widely considered central to the conservatory. He has been drawn to this remarkable composition since his undergraduate days, as described in David Weininger’s pre-concert commentary in the September 23rd Boston Globe and in Lee Eiseman’s wide-ranging and moving interview online in the Intelligencer HERE. The work provided a fitting commemoration, both because it is truly profound, befitting someone of the artist’s stature, and also, because of the parallels between Lesser and Bloch—men fueled with dedication to teaching and learning—both superb musicians and inspirational teachers.
Completed a little over a century past, in 1916, during the specter of World War I, even in neutral Switzerland, Schelomo took root from a passage from Ecclesiastes recalling King Solomon (whose name in Hebrew is Schelomo)—“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor Wherein he laboreth under the sun? One generation passeth away and another generation cometh; And the earth abideth forever.” Bloch felt that the cello could give voice like no other instrument to these overpowering thoughts. Played by nearly all serious cellists and recorded by many, it induces tears.
With expressive intonation and the plangency he can be counted upon from his embrace of a 1622 Amati, Lesser called us as if to prayer with the power of a Jewish muezzin. He conveyed Bloch’s intent masterfully throughout, beginning with the long, opening cello cadenza, introducing cantorial melodies with passion, lightly bolstered by the orchestra. The many Jewish melodies befitted both the work and the occasion. From the initial andante to the allegro moderato and the return of andante, this reading rose in inspirational flights
After intermission, the mood changed with the Bernstein, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The NEC Philharmonia’s rendition on Wednesday surpassed any I have heard with its vibrant range, enthusiasm and swing. Bernstein assembled the score for “Dances” in 1961, nearly four years after the musical premiered; it stands securely on its own. Lucas Foss conducted the premier at Carnegie Hall with the New York Phil, in a 1961 “Valentine” fundraiser in honor of Bernstein. A special shout out for some of the featured players: Andrew Truskowski, French horn; Jennifer Marasti, percussion; Bennett Parsons, alto saxophone; Alice Chenhang Xu, piano; and Kenneth Alcius, tuba.
The overall quality, verve, and excitement in the air become all the more remarkable given the NEC Philharmonia’s short rehearsal schedule, which follows that of a professional orchestra so as to help students understand the pace of post-conservatory life. NEC orchestras will give many more free concerts this year; do attend—you won’t be disappointed.