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NEC Philharmonia

Jordan Hall, Boston, MA

September 30, 2009

From the outside, the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall is deceptively plain. Construction lines the street and scaffolding hides the entire face of the building, making it easy to pass by without a second glance. Inside, however, is a different story altogether. An ambience of grandeur and excellence penetrates every corner of the 1013-seat concert hall, whose rich mahogany paneled walls and gold-plated detailing creates an aesthetically, as well as acoustically, perfect space.

On Wednesday, September 30, I was one of the thousand or so eager audience members who filed into Jordan Hall for the opening concert of the NEC’s orchestral season. Performing was the NEC’s Philharmonia, the school’s top student orchestra, consisting of some of the best and brightest upcoming musicians and conducted by the world-renowned Hugh Wolff. On the playbill: Symphony No.3 by Johannes Brahms and the The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. Both works promised to excite; the third symphony was one of Brahm’s greatest musical achievements, and The Rite’s hypnotic rhythms created a storm of controversy when it first debuted in 1913.

As the orchestra began its tuning, silence fell upon the jam-packed hall. Proud parents, fellow students, and the like all waited with growing anticipation — and they would not be disappointed. The orchestra played Brahms with effortless expertise, progressing through the four movements with stunning expression. The beauty of Symphony No. 3 lies in its subtleties; it seems repetitive, but only on the surface. Each movement builds on the previous one, progressing in tone and detail but not in structure. Integral to the successful rendition of such a cyclic symphony is a deep exploration of its delicacies, and the Philharmonia was more than up for the challenge. The strings in particular did a fantastic job of creating a soft harmonious backdrop when called upon to do so and built up the emotion and emphasis to climactic heights for the finale.

But the main event of the evening was yet to come. Stravinsky’s particularly challenging Rite is well-known as one of the more difficult and exciting symphonies an orchestra can perform due to its radical rhythms and exotic sounds. Silence raptured the audience as its famous first notes rang through the air, played expertly by a solo bassoonist. Tension built as clarinets and flutes joined in the bassoonist’s cry of foreboding — The Rite’s subject is a pagan Russian tribe’s celebration of spring with the sacrifice of a young girl who dances herself to death. More and more instruments joined in, clashing in tone and melody to the point of chaotic feverishness.

The effect was explosive. The strings struck in unison with the powerful effect of percussion, drums beat wildly, horns followed the several melodies to their climax, and the flutes’ vibrato echoed eerily. The orchestra moved easily between such climaxes and a soft constraint that betrayed the underlying dark themes of the piece. The crowd was spellbound. When it was all over, applause erupted for several minutes.

Neither the Conservatory’s standard of excellence nor Jordan Hall’s renowned reputation for outstanding acoustics failed to impress. The success of this opening concert promises great performances to come from the NEC’s Philharmonia — performances bound to provide rich entertainment to anyone with an appreciation for live classical music. For future concert listings, see http://necmusic.edu.