Conductor Susan Davenny Wyner programs concerts for the New England String Ensemble that welcome the newcomer and delight the connoisseur.
She called the seasonal opener Sunday afternoon in Jordan Hall "Love Struck, Torn and Healed." It began with a cheerful divertimento by the 16-year-old Mozart, full of high spirits but with a note of yearning in the slow movement. The work tells us that when Mozart came to create his adolescent Cherubino in "The Marriage of Figaro," he was remembering his younger self.
Then came Mahler's love letter to the woman who would become his wife, the famous Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, followed by Britten's late cantata "Phaedra," which is about the power of love to consume and destroy. After intermission, the ensemble played Dvorak's delightful Serenade for strings, another piece written under the intoxicating spell of love's fulfillment.
Wyner has made the New England String Ensemble a contender since taking it over five years ago; the group has been on a steadily ascendant curve and plays better all the time. The Mozart was chipper and stylish. The Mahler, removed from its huge context, moved right along; it had unusual warmth and intimacy. Wyner, back in the '70s one of America's leading singers, knows when to push a vocal line and how to linger. Harpist Judy Saiki helped anchor the rhythm.
"Phaedra" was the last major vocal work of a great composer who spent most of his career writing for singers. It's a setting of passages from Racine's play in a blazing translation by Robert Lowell. We see Phaedra on her wedding day, fatally attracted to her husband's son; her hopeless struggle to dam the flood of passion; her remorse; her death -- all in less than a quarter-hour of music that is responsive to every swift-changing emotional hue of text.
The scoring is for strings, percussion, and harpsichord; for this percussionist Matt Gordy and harpsichordist Peter Sykes joined the ensemble. There is a prominent part for cello, which was vividly taken by Joshua Gordon, and Wyner was alert to every detail of the drama's progress toward its inevitable destination. Through Britten's music we could feel the spread of poison through Phaedra's veins.
Soprano Janna Baty's interpretation was broad and generous, although not yet equally subtle and focused. That will come with time, and she has everything else going for her -- she was volatile in temperament, striking in declamation, assured in musicianship, and thrillingly vibrant in tone.
Some of the higher reaches of Dvorak's string writing in the Serenade were not unanimously tuned, but Wyner and her players closed the concert with a performance of redeeming lilt and warmth of spirit.
New England String Ensemble
Susan Davenny Wyner,music director
At: Jordan Hall, Sunday afternoon