The concert performed by the NEC Symphony in Jordan Hall on Wednesday, October 5, was a continuation of New England Conservatory’s “Mahler Unleashed,” a series of “concerts, symphonies, jam sessions, liederabends, symposia, lectures and film” extending from September to December and commemorating the centenary of Gustav Mahler’s death. (More information is available here ). This concert, conducted by David Loebel, NEC Associate Director of Orchestras, was titled “Life, Death and Redemption” and featured works of three other composers as well as Mahler.
We began with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2, Op. 72a, an audible example of this composer’s compulsion to revise (there are in fact four such overtures). The performance was largely assured and musical, but there were just enough instances of faulty tuning and inexact ensemble to remind the listener that this is a student orchestra close to but not yet at professional standard. Still, there were many praiseworthy things: the atmospheric pianissimo string-playing, the numerous fine woodwind solos, the very effective offstage trumpet fanfares, and the final più allegro section that crackled with excitement leading to a thrilling conclusion.
The continual impulse to revise is a trait common to Beethoven and Mahler, perhaps the reason for placing Mahler’s Totenfeier second on the program. This 1888 preliminary version of the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”), though separated by a five-year gap from the composing of the next two movements, differs from the final version primarily in the size of the orchestra: it calls for a considerably smaller ensemble than the published edition. Though the title, Totenfeier (“Ceremony for the Dead”; its translation was a peculiar omission from the program booklet), was removed in the subsequent revision, Mahler retained its character in one of his markings: “With a serious and ceremonial expression throughout.” Loebel and the orchestra achieved this expression even through the myriad moods in the course of a movement of over twenty minutes. In this difficult music, there was again a mixture of highly accomplished playing and less successful. Here too there were occasional instances of blurry ensemble and inaccurate intonation, and (particularly in very soft passages) the trumpets and horns had perhaps more than their share of clams. On the other hand, the balances were well judged (the program notes indicated that the inexperienced composer’s dynamic markings must be recalibrated by conductor and orchestra for important musical material to be heard); there were beautiful solos from flute, English horn, and violin; and climaxes were well-prepared and viscerally exciting although the final, fortissimo full-orchestra plunge into the abyss burst out of nowhere, just as it should. The stunned audience held their breath for some time after it, as, no doubt, Mahler intended.
Following intermission we heard three excerpts from La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24, by Hector Berlioz who, like Mahler, followed his own path as regards orchestration. And as did Tchaikovsky (whose music finished the program), Berlioz rejected the doctrine of “absolute music” and freely sought literary inspiration for his works. The “Dance of the Sylphs” depicts magical beings conjured by Mephistopheles to surround Faust and put him to sleep. At the opening, Berlioz gives us a playful dance for winds only. Especially prominent were upper woodwinds: flutes and piccolos. Even allowing for changing personnel from piece to piece, how often does one see five piccolo players and nine flutists listed on a program? An example of Berlioz’s sui generis approach to orchestration, this piece fairly often formed chords entirely within the piccolos/flutes. Being high and exposed must make it extra challenging to be in tune, but they and the other woodwinds were successful though the horns were somewhat less so. There was a particularly dazzling faster section with virtuoso wind writing and a pizzicato string accompaniment. In the “Minuet of the Will-o-the-Wisps” Mephistopheles summons more of his minions to gain the soul of the innocent Marguerite. Berlioz skillfully juxtaposes naïve serenity with sinister menace, and Loebel and the NEC Symphony were equally skillful in realizing his intentions. There was some ravishing playing from muted strings, joined by flutes and harps. The Rákóczy March (a/k/a Hungarian March) is a musical description of the majestic procession of the Hungarian army across a plain where Faust finds himself one evening. This was an interesting mixture of delicacy and virility, with clean-cut, rousing playing.
Concluding the program was the symphonic fantasia Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. (Perhaps this had something to do with the presence of a substantial Russian-speaking contingent within the audience!) In Canto V of Inferno, Dante Alighieri portrays a historical 13th-century noblewoman whose husband discovers her adultery with his brother Paolo and kills them both. The pair are consigned to the second circle of Hell, buffeted eternally by whirlwinds for the sin of adultery. Tchaikovsky acknowledged being inspired by Gustav Doré’s painting of the lovers, and indeed both composer and painter focus particularly on the whirlwind motif. This is an orchestral showpiece par excellence, and the NEC Symphony and Loebel rose to the challenge. They maintained impressively tight ensemble even through the long sequences of descending triplets that move almost entirely on offbeats — perhaps a musical description of treacherous footing during Dante’s and Virgil’s descent into Hell. The musical descriptions were everywhere vivid: the soulful and nostalgic clarinet solo beginning the calmer central section; the satin-smooth string playing — supported by glowing horns — of the love theme (whose beauty is fully comparable, in my opinion, to that of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet), and its apotheosis in the full brass; the touching sighs that alternate between strings and woodwinds; the thrilling build-ups to the virtuosic and violent windstorms in the opening and concluding sections; and the still-faster coda which was spine-tingling for its tight control of ensemble and dynamics. The ending was staggering: half a dozen full-orchestra iterations of an augmented-sixth chord (or something similar) with full percussion before the hopelessly final bare-octaves last chord.
In this demanding program, the players were mostly on their mettle and truly impressive in the second half. The remaining seventeen programs in “Mahler Unleashed” are of an astounding variety, e.g., the next, on October 13, encompasses music by Giovanni Gabrieli, Mahler, and Duke Ellington, among others! Our gratitude goes to David Loebel and the NEC Symphony for imaginative programming and, in particular, a real Mahler rarity.
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