This fall, New England Conservatory has, as reported here, been dipping its toes in the water of live-streaming some of its larger ensembles. On November 14th an audience-free Jordan Hall hosted a be-masked and be-distanced NEC Philharmonia (string orchestra) under guest conductor Christopher Wilkins in a lively and poised recital of 20th– and 21st– century pieces, mostly connected by the theme of coming from their composers’ youth. That said, some of them have become among their composers’ most popular.
George Walker’s 1946 Lyric for Strings, which like the Barber Adagio with which it is inevitably mentally paired (the latter from 1933, so perhaps the pairing was intentional on Walker’s part), began its life as the slow movement of a string quartet; upscoring for larger ensemble came perhaps as a result of each composer’s recognition that he had a hit on his hands. Superficially their elegiac characters, gradual unfolding, and even their climactic sonic density, seem remarkably similar, though Walker employs a more discernably ternary structure, with more abrupt key and chord changes. The Philharmonia’s sounded suave, polished and impeccably disciplined, and Wilkins (Music Director of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and Akron Symphony and, we are told, former star oboist of the Massachusetts Youth Wind Ensemble) elicited clarity and stylish dynamic nuance from the ensemble.
Aldemaro Romero (1928-2007) doesn’t get seen too often on concert programs hereabouts. The Venezuelan composer devoted most of his remarkably multifarious career to pop, folk, jazz and other genres than concert music; he is even credited with creating a style combining jazz with joropa pop (the joropa being the national dance of Venezuela, developed from fandango) that was dubbed New Wave (onda nueva). However, write in classical forms he did, and the Fuga con Pajarillo movement from his Suite for Strings No. 1 (1990, so not exactly a work of his youth) represents the kind of fusion for which the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras is famous (so is this Bachianas Venezolanas?). A pajarillo is a dance form, in triple meter that, like the Polish mazurka stresses the second beat, and this movement is delightfully springy, with polyrhythms and a secondary counterpoint of numerous melodic ideas. The performance was sprightly and rhythmically on point.
Clarice Assad (b. 1978), the only living composer represented, was born in Brazil, but after a peripatetic upbringing studied and is now living in the US. She, too, has an exceptionally broad frame of musical reference, with Brazilian folk, world music, jazz and pop as sources, and is widely known as a singer, pianist, and arranger. Her 2008 Impressions Suite is, like the Romero, a fusion of classical/baroque and popular idioms, in four full movements and a brief coda. The movement titles are Personas: Theme and Variations; Fusion: Dança Brasileira; Affection: Slow Waltz; Precision: Perpetual Motion; and Unity: Coda. The first opens with a somewhat solemn Brazilian-sounding theme, while the variations work up a jazzy vibe without leaving the strong sense of place, and several of them feature solos for individual players (kudos to Gabriel Martins, cello and Diego Martinez, contrabass), while others highlight “concertinos” or the full ensemble. The second is definitely Villa-Lobos meets pop, with the full timbral resources of the string ensemble well exploited. The third is a very slow waltz with a creamy affect that Wilkins shaped deliciously. The moto perpetuo idea of the fourth is mostly given over to the upper strings, while the lower ones pursued more discrete melodic ideas, until everyone links up for the end; quite effective. The coda is hymnic and satisfying.
To close, the Philharmonia dusted off Benjamin Britten’s first major hit, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937, composer at age 23). It is interesting that two of the greatest English composers had their first global successes with variation sets, although Elgar didn’t write his until age 42. Britten’s theme, written by his teacher (Bridge) for no. 2 of his Three Idylls for String Quartet, op. 67 (1906), is dauntingly chromatic. The nine variations plus fugue highlight specific aspects of Bridge’s character, as seen by his admiring acolyte. It is interesting that this, the oldest piece on the stream, contained some of its grittiest music, especially in the bourree and waltz. The players gave great accounts of the virtuosic demands. The moto perpetuo was suitably fiery, the funeral march suitably intense, and the chant supernally mysterious. The fugue has some of the creepy-clown quality now associated with Nino Rota’s Fellini scores. Again, Wilkins brought out excellent dynamic contrasts, especially leading up to the restatement of the theme, and produced a haunting ending.
It is satisfying to be able to “attend” these NEC concerts even as it were in pandemo (or would that be en pandemos?), and the streaming sound from Jordan Hall was superb. We do wish, however, that NEC could join with most other groups sponsoring live-streams and keep their programs available for a time after the performances. We’re told that the NEC site requires some reprogramming to effect this, but that some programs make it to NEC’s YouTube channel. This one isn’t there yet, but it doesn’t appear that NEC has been putting up more than individual works when it does. So let’s give them a nudge.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.