The anticipatory buzz of the ebullient NEC Philharmonia members suggested they were readying to play Brahms’s summer-of-1880 Academic Overture than his Tragic, though he wrote both during that same stay in Bad Ischl, renowned then (as now) for its brine baths, medicinal springs and glitterati. Excitement in the youthful Symphony Hall audience rose as charismatic NEC conductor Hugh Wolff strode onto the stage last Wednesday and animatedly ushered in the two incisive chords that begin the work; from there, the yearning passion followed by moments of introspection, permeated the hall. The intense, mature and depthful performance belied the ages of the players.
That rapt attention never let up. Composer and pianist Gabriela Lena Frank, whose career embodies many aspects of the role of music in culture, is known for creating deeply thoughtful compositions that innovatively combine her Chinese, Jewish, Eastern European, Peruvian, Spanish, and Quechua-Indian roots. “Tackling one aspect of the conquest in writing the Conquest Requiem comes from a personal connection to an event of such magnitude.”
NEC Philharmonia marked the New England premiere of 2017 requiem. Frank, in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Nilo Cruz, wove together its liturgy in Latin, Spanish and the Mayan language, Nahua, basing it on the true story of the intelligent, multi-talented Malinche, a Mayan, who, given as a young woman as a slave to the conquistadors used her linguistic talents as an interpreter, which helped the Spaniards in their wars against the Aztecs. Malinche later became the mistress of Cortés and bore his son, Martin, who may have been the initial mestizo. The piece mourns loss yet celebrates change and transcendence, and a time that disrupted Mayan, Aztec, Incan and other civilizations. The NEC Symphonic Choir took on a central role in each of seven movements, filling both musical and narrative roles with coherence and sonority.
Coloratura soprano Yeonjae Cho sang the Introit: Cuicatl de Malinche (Song of Malinche), imploringly and with haunting reverence. Other sections, with familiar Latin titles such as Judex ergo cum debit promised requiems we know, yet provided novel orchestration and sound. Some combined languages, as in Dies irae: Cuicatl de Martin, (Song of Martin), which introduced Libang Wang’s rich baritone. Conquest Requiem seems likely the first of a welcome hybrid genre, challenging to perform, exciting to hear. The performance of this moving, unique and remarkable Frank work also celebrated both Erica Washburn, Director of Choral Activities at NEC with the NEC Symphonic Choir and its collaboration with Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia.
After intermission, came Lutoslawski’s stunning Concerto for Orchestra. Frank lists it among her favorites, and the NEC Philharmonia’s interpretatation nodded to its Brahmsian beginning and further may explain how composer Frank orchestrates many of her own movements. In this demanding opus, the percussion section shone from the first note of the Intrada: Allegro maestoso—a beginning more ominous, even than the start of Brahms’s First, followed by folk melody initiated in the deep strings and rising sequentially and contrapuntally to the first violins. The dramatic mid-section is both entertaining and ominous, falling back to a quiet ending with woodwinds. The Capriccio notturno e Arioso: Vivace provided airy respite, introduced by the violins, then other strings and woodwinds, before it transitioned to the Arioso, introduced by stentorian brass. Ultimately, cellos and harp reprised the capriccio at first bowed and then plucked. The movement ended with portentous rumbles from the double basses, drums and bass clarinet and then wafted into a void. The Philharmonia conquered the challenging finale: Passacaglia, Toccate e Corale: Andante con moto—Allegro giusto. The unusual Passacaglia, a set of 17 variations on a dark theme enunciated by the double basses and harps, vehemently elaborated and ended with a pianissimo last variation that traveled pianissimo to the highest ranges of the enraptured first violins; a dynamic Toccata followed, with bold rhythmic energy, including counterpoint. Within all this, the Corale appeared midway, and then repeated with variations, until the Corale returned, ultimately morphing into a dramatic fortissimo conclusion.
As it uses a large wind section as well as full string sections plus timpani, snare, tenor and bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, xylophone, bells, celesta, two harps, and piano, Lutoslawski’s Concerto provided many opportunities for the talented NEC Philharmonia and conductor Hugh Wolff to shine. Clearly a beacon within NEC, the wider Greater Boston Community also takes much pleasure from Wolff’s presence.