New England Conservatory (NEC) returns to Symphony Hall for the first time since 2018 in a wide-reaching program of orchestral and choral works. NEC Philharmonia and Symphonic Choir give the New England premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s Conquest Requiem with vocal soloists soprano YeonJae Cho ’24 AD and baritone Libang Wang ’23 MM. Lutoslawski’s demanding Concerto for Orchestra, and Brahms’ Tragic Overture also feature in the April 26th concert at 7:30pm at Symphony Hall. Tickets HERE
According to Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras Chair, Hugh Wolff, Brahms’s Tragic Overture sets the tone for Gabriela Lena Frank’s Conquest Requiem. The composer, whose works have been performed worldwide, is interested in the intersection of many cultures, reflecting her own Peruvian, Chinese, and Lithuanian Jewish heritage. This work for full orchestra, chorus, and soprano and baritone soloists mixes the Latin Requiem Mass with indigenous Nahuatl poetry and Spanish texts to explore the complex story of the Spanish conquest of Central America. Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra – music that showcases every section – promises a rousing conclusion.
FLE: Though we love hearing NEC orchestras in Jordan Hall, it is a somewhat rare treat for players and listeners when the NEC Philharmonia crosses Huntington Avenue and gives a concert in Symphony Hall. NEC made much of the Philharmonia first visit to Symphony Hall in 2010. In 2014 NEC’s visited there again as part of its very well remembered “Music: Truth to Power” season. Can you remind us of other visits?
HW: Actually, we were on an every-other-year schedule starting in 2014 with the Egmont Overture and Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony – both pieces that “speak truth to power.” In 2016 we featured Alexi Kenney in the John Adams’s Violin Concerto, a short work of Andrew Norman and the complete Firebird ballet of Stravinsky. In 2018 we did the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Fourth Symphony, “Chromelodeon,” music we helped commission. Inmo Yang played the Bernstein Serenade and we closed with Debussy’s La Mer. Mahler’s Second Symphony was scheduled in 2020, and — well, we all know what happened that year. It has taken us three years to get back to normal.
We append the composer’s notes HERE, but please give us your sense of what to expect in the Frank. Is this political art?
She has written something very personal, very authentic, and very beautiful. She confronts the clash of civilizations when the Spanish conquered Mexico and extinguished (while partly assimilating) the Aztec culture. The soprano plays the enslaved woman who became Cortes’ translator, then confidante and lover. We will never know if this was a consensual relationship. Their child, sung by the baritone soloist, is the first mestizo, or mixed-race person in Central America. Needless to say it is an incendiary subject handled with immense sensitivity. Gabriela has done something brilliant here.
And then how does the Lutoslawski fit into the programmatic scheme?
First, I should say we were intent on celebrating the 75th anniversary of the choral program at NEC, made famous by Lorna Cooke deVaron and now in the excellent hands of Erica Washburn.
To complete the program, I was interested in including music from three different centuries. Brahms is the classic from the 19th century; Gabriela Lena Frank’s Requiem is the contemporary 21st century piece. Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra is a showpiece from the middle of the 20th century. Relatively few works written between 1950 and 2000 have made it into the standard repertoire. This is a terrific example and a virtuoso work that allows every section of the NEC Philharmonia to shine.
To the extent that you can do so without undo bragging, please tell us a bit about the state of orchestras at NEC.
The orchestra program at NEC has been fully rebuilt post-pandemic. After a year when we were restricted to fewer than 20 players on stage at one time, we are back to over 330 students participating in four orchestras, playing a wide variety of repertoire, operas, contemporary ensemble, and Baroque ensemble. We aspire to give the students a pre-professional experience – running the orchestras much the way professional ensembles are run, with the same standards and expectations that students will face after graduation. We give over 35 free concerts every year. It’s a joy for me to see the eagerness, enthusiasm, and engagement of the students, and, frankly, the level of technical accomplishment is much higher than when I was a student back in the day! What’s not to love in all that?
I remember talking with you and then President Tony Wookcock about what was billed as the first such peregrination back in 2010. It’s interesting to look back and see how accurately you and Tony prognosticated. The complete interview is HERE. Some excerpts follow.
Woodcock: Surprises can be very pleasant. … First thing I did, I took a look at the program nearest and dearest to my heart, because I had been working in that world for so long. That was the orchestral program. It hadn’t had a really full-time director for — low long? five years?
FLE: It has been one of your most dramatic contributions, to restore the NEC orchestras to prominence.
If you think about it, there now are more than 300 students in our orchestras and large ensembles, so nearly 50% want a strong positive experience with the orchestral program. What is new is the depth of experience people are getting now. Hugh Wolff is phenomenal. Extraordinary. He is not a visiting celebrity, although he is a celebrity in his own right. The first thing he said was, “I will personally audition every single student for every ensemble.” The message to students was, we’re going in a different direction.
To really have a program that is very challenging, so they get a tremendous sense of achievement, I think is the way to go. And we get great audiences for these concerts now. When we did the first concert this academic year, the entire building was full. I didn’t have a seat. That was some indication of a buzz that was out there about what was happening with Hugh. …
He doesn’t just conduct the Philharmonia. He has amalgamated it and the Symphony, giving far more performance opportunities.