The passion of youth is a triumph over time
A first-class student orchestra gives a special thrill. They may lack some of the depth, flexibility, and responsiveness of a professional band. But they go a long way to make up for any lacks with their brilliance, esprit de corps (oh, young nerves!), and something that they will lose in a few years: smiles on their faces. They seem to think the music was written for them.
These things were all in evidence during the first concert of the new year by the NEC Philharmonia at Jordan Hall on Thursday. Led by conductor Hugh Wolff, who took over NEC's orchestral programs a year ago, they performed a beautifully balanced and substantial program of Haydn (Symphony No. 86), a movement of NEC-based composer Michael Gondolfi's "Garden of Cosmic Speculation," and Carl Nielsen's mountainous Symphony No. 4.
The six "Paris" symphonies of Haydn, commissioned from the 53-year-old composer, recently freed from courtly duties, are grandly masterful, freshly imaginative and, curiously, not that often performed. (The BSO hasn't done any of them in more than a decade.) This was full-bodied Haydn, with nice period detail interspersed - vibrato-less string tone, soft appeals from the woodwinds. The strings played with great panache in the finale (Haydn was writing for famous French strings). One missed only the last degree of polish in phrase endings, and, occasionally, a sense of forward momentum: Wolff's baton underlined individual beats rather than a flowing, caffeine-charged pulse.
Michael Gondolfi's eclectic "Garden," begun in 2004 and added to in 2007, is interesting, full of retro-baroque and classical ideas, without much retro-humor, or imagination when it comes to melody. (A fact its placement after Haydn underlined.) Nielsen's Fourth Symphony, huge, heterogeneous, episodic, and rather pompous, with passages of self-conscious beauty, tested any of the orchestra's skills that had not been tested already, including the blow-'em-away climax. Wolff conducted, from memory, with a sense of grand design. And, when the players stood, triumph was written on their faces. Well-earned.