A First Monday at New England Conservatory’s Jordan hall is like a neighborhood event. Admission is free and seating is unassigned. People in the know arrive early to claim the best places and to hear some of the best chamber players in town. If they feel like clapping after a single movement rather than waiting for the entire piece to end, no one taps them on the shoulder with an admonitory “Shush.” This season, First Mondays are exploring connections and friendships between composers and musicians who inspired each other. On November 4th, the program focused on works composed nearly a century apart by Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn. Introducing the program, acclaimed cellist and NEC president emeritus Laurence Lesser, who founded First Mondays some 35 years ago, offered some corrections to the conventional view of Mendelssohn as the supremely talented child prodigy of sunny disposition to whom everything was given and to whom everything came easily. A grandson of the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix was born in Hamburg to a well-to-do family and grew up in Berlin. His parents recognized and supported his precocious talents, even hiring musicians to perform his early works. In 1823 his grandmother gave him a copy of the score of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Six years later — more than 100 years after its first performance in Leipzig in 1727 — and against the advice of friends and mentors, he conducted a large group of amateur choral singers along with instrumentalists and soloists in a performance at the Berlin Singakademie. Mendelssohn modernized the orchestration and made numerous cuts and omissions, but the audience was enthusiastic, and two more performances followed. Early in 1835 he was named conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, remaining there until his death in 1847. More biographical details cast doubt on the supposed serenity of Mendelssohn’s personal life. Baptized a Lutheran at age 7, he married a pastor’s daughter in 1837; they had five children and an exemplary family life. Or so it seemed. Early in 1845, however, the 18-year-old Lisa Cristiani appeared in Leipzig to play with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn dedicated his only Song Without Words for an instrument other than solo piano to her, and love letters he wrote her suggest they may have had a brief affair. In December of the same year the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind performed at the Gewandhaus. Recent research suggests that she too received passionate love letters from Mendelssohn, in which he even threatened suicide in order to exert pressure on her. Although she did not sing it until after his death, Mendelssohn apparently composed the soprano aria “Hear ye, Israel!” in his oratorio Elijah for her.
Opening Monday’s concert, cellist SuJin Lee performed the Song Without Words, op. 109, with beautiful rounded tone and supple phrasing as a soaring lyrical melody, while pianist Jung-A Bang provided well-modulated support. After a middle section in an agitated minor with dense figuration in the piano, the first section returned with striking new modulations, only to conclude in a whisper. Bach composed his Concerto for Three Harpsichords and Strings in D Minor, BWV 1063, in 1733 for performance with his two sons, Carl Philipp Emmanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, at the coffeehouse concerts of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. For Monday night’s performance, harpsichordists Nickolai Sheikov, Peter Sykes, and Ian Watson joined with violinists Gabriela Diaz and Leonard Fu, violist Sarah Darling, and cellist Guy Fishman, with Charles Clements on the double bass. The first movement, with its strident unison opening in the manner of an Italian concerto grosso, received a spirited performance, with most of the concertino assigned to Sheikov. The second movement, Alla siciliana, an aria for the first violin, concluded with a virtuoso harpsichord cadenza. In the final Allegro, its joyful progression marked by strongly articulated syncopations, concertino interludes were divided equally among the three soloists.
One of the most touching moments in the entire St. Matthew Passion, the alto aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott/Um meiner Zähren Willen” (Have mercy, my God/for the sake of my tears) follows the Evangelist’s narration of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ. In a slow siciliano tempo, an elaborately ornamented violin obbligato part introduces and completes the aria, and artfully interweaves with the voice part throughout. Violinist Ayana Ninomiya joined mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser and the string ensemble; Sheikov played the continuo on a small chamber organ. Although Brookhyser’s clear tone and precise intonation were a pleasure to hear, one would have wished for more supple phrasing and dynamics to match the emotional eloquence of Ninomiya’s playing. Mendelssohn composed his Quintet in B-flat Major for Strings, op. 87, in July 1845. Monday night’s players were Ayana Ninomiya and Lucy Chapman, violins, Marcus Thompson and Sarah Darling, violas, Lluis Claret, cello. In the Allegro vivace, a robust triadic opening contrasted with a descending chromatic second theme. The Andante scherzando played about with delicate pizzicato effects. Adagio e lento, the third movement, presented an impassioned aria for the first violin; when repeated, this melody moved to the second violin as the first violin wove elaborate arabesques around it. Concluding with a resounding whirlwind of a finale, Allegro molto vivace, this wonderfully coordinated ensemble elicited great cheers.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.