While throngs of Bostonians had recently crowded the streets to celebrate the Red Sox’s victory, the NEC Philharmonia, under Hugh Wolff’s direction, brought together a full house at Jordan Hall prepared to enter the darkened hues of All Hallows’ Eve. Addressing the audience before Wolff took the podium, Marjorie Apfelbaum, NEC’s Director of Large Ensembles, emphasized the connection of the evening’s program to Leonard Bernstein, whose centenary continues to be celebrated. Indeed, this concert, featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Helix (2005) and Mahler’s epic Fifth Symphony, generated connections, not only to Bernstein and his famous Mahler-cycle interpretations, but also to the content and musical similarities in the works’ transcendental, spiritual subtexts.
Much like Bernstein and Mahler, Salonen composed before becoming a conductor; his storied conducting career made it possible for his brilliant compositions to find their rightful place in the orchestral repertory. As the overture, Salonen’s Helix provided a kaleidoscopic preface to what an orchestra of 100-plus of Boston’s finest conservatory students can create. To quote Salonen on his composition:
The form of Helix can indeed be described as a spiral or a coil; or more academically a curve that lies on a cone and makes a constant angle with the straight lines parallel to the base of the cone…The process of Helix is basically that of a nine-minute accelerando. The tempo gets faster, but the note values of the phrases become correspondingly longer…the material (which consists essentially of two different phrases) is being pushed through constantly narrowing concentric circles until the music reaches a point where it has to stop as it has nowhere to go.
The work emerged from a sparse orchestral texture of percussion (most notably tam-tam); complementary voices arose with the entry of solo piccolo (Xiaoyu Lin) and contrabassoon (Gary Huang) accompanied by strings. The effect was distinctly ominous and eerie. As the piece proceeded, the thematic material morphed just as described in Salonen’s note. Various climaxes gave way to section solos, with the strings’ lush phrasing in juxtaposition with the heft of the lower brass. Helix finished suddenly, as if forced to stop. The overall effect of this masterfully orchestrated piece was of exponentially increasing pressure – perhaps a 21st century response to the melodious, yet relentless, crescendo in Ravel’s Bolero.
After a brief repositioning of the woodwinds, brass, and percussion, Mahler’s monumental Fifth Symphony began as principal trumpet Eli Ross proclaimed the opening “fate” motif. After the abrupt finish of Helix, the gesangvoll string dialogues in the opening “Trauermarsch” came as a welcome contrast, countered by the movement’s manic, contrapuntal outbursts. As specified by Mahler, the second movement arrived with the greatest vehemence (mit grösster Vehemenz). Here, the woodwinds’ chromatic runs whirled with absolute precision, followed by passages of swooning lyricism. The lower strings phrased a mournful Judaic cantilena accompanied by solo violin (played with great sensitivity by Luther Warren). The redemptive light that emerged in the pesante section was especially moving, introducing the eventual tonal and motivic return in the Finale, also in D Major.
The third movement, a Ländler-like Scherzo, began buoyantly from the horns (Christina Schempf, principal). The orchestra showcased the best of its chamber musicianship with waltzing pizzicati, expressive solos by the woodwinds and brass (most notably the staccato passages by Ryan Turano, principal bassoon). Like the other movements, the Scherzo maintained architectural control, though it emphasized a strong sense of rhythmic groove — its syncopations prophesying jazz.
The sublime fourth movement, Adagietto brought sought-after relief from the concentrated intensity. Wolff elicited an exemplary tenderness and sensuality from the strings (with Charmaine Teo, harp). The Finale followed attacca, with its characteristic leaping-fourth motif in the horn; the celli and double basses set the pace for the joyous, motoric Rondo. The themes from the Adagietto re-emerged with great warmth and Viennese charm, especially during the polka-like motivic inversion. One could clearly feel that the orchestra had reached its homecoming in this movement, a celebration of everything that had previously transpired; the weight of the manifold musical meanings was sublimated into luminous exuberance.
Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia gave a truly cathartic performance on an evening traditionally suffused with mysticism. While the penitent march for the dead was appropriate given the psychological weight of current domestic and international events, Wednesday night’s performance dispensed a much-desired, poignant musical redemption.
Upcoming concerts at NEC include First Monday at Jordan Hall, November 5 @ 7:30pm (a Czech program, with works by Smetana, Janáček, and Dvořák) and the NEC Symphony with David Loebel, November 7 @ 7:30pm (with works by Schumann, Haydn, Britten, and Copland).