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NEC Symphony at its Finest with Gershwin, Wagner, Ives & Ravel

Hugh Wolff, NEC SymphonyOn March 12, 2014, Hugh Wolff conducted four major orchestral pieces, (three of them scoreless) in complete control of the NEC Symphony Orchestra and the attending audience, all of whom he engaged as contributing members to the evening's music.  Breathtaking, awesome, incredible and magical are words that describe the performance of pieces by Wagner, Ravel, Ives and Gershwin.



Tristan und Isolde

The evening began with a mesmerizing performance of the Prelude and "Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner.  Conducted more slowly and luciously than its typical presentation, the performance began in silence.

Conductor Wolff seems to require an absolute commitment from both himself and every member of the orchestra.  He demands this from the audience as well.  Turning to his right, he raised his baton to start, then dropped it as those strings also dropped their bows. 

He leaned forward and with the orchestra members stilled by no movement, the audience joined with him in a massive and sacred quiet.  You could have heard a pin drop.


Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

A break following the Wagner allowed the set hands to move the magnificent grand piano to center front stage with the conductor's podium behind.  The pianist, David Horton, sat on the bench and appeared to be stretching his hand, moving it around as if to limber it up.  That must be the hand, I thought, that will be playing the "Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major" by Maurice Ravel.  But I was wrong.  That was his right hand.  As the concerto progressed, I kept seeing his right hand (in my mind) sneaking onto the keyboard.  Feeling left (!) out, it wanted so much to join in with the left hand to add even more excitement and depth to the performance.

Ravel composed the concerto's opening phrases using the lowest notes and instruments in the orchestra, creating a mysterious prelude to what was to follow.  Once the tone and rhythms were introduced, the (real) left hand entered at the lowest notes of the piano. But unlike standard pianos whose bass notes barely resonate, this piano spoke eloquently across the entire length of its keyboard and the concerto grew in complexity as it moved into the higher ranges. 

While the initial concerto sections alternated orchestra and piano,  this stepping sequence of solos later embraced into a full duet rapture.  Mr. Horton's technical and interpretive capabilities and his showmanship were greatly enjoyed and appreciated by all.  Multiple bows later and a beautiful bouquet of flowers completed the concerto. 


NEC SymphonyThe Unanswered Question, S. 50

Ives is the only piece where Hugh Wolff used a score (had one in front of him).  It began with the conductor and his baton "at attention" before an orchestra of four flautists. 

What was he doing and what were we, the audience, waiting for? 

Yet barely audibly, the sounds of distant strings wafted through the hall, as if they were memories or overheard from some other space nearby. 

Wolff conducted an "off-site" trumpeter (in the balcony) by raising his left arm, then turning his hand to signal "begin."  The trumpet sounded the same short sequence of notes each time followed immediately by Wolff conducting his tiny orchestra. 

As if the trumpeter were asking the same question, again and again, not having received an acceptable answer, the orchestra answered.  The motif, the voice, was the same but the musical response changed slightly with each repetition.  What sounded like a tribute to modern harmony ended each conversation in discord.  

The distant strings, the trumpeter's call, the conductor's staging and the tiny orchestra were constant and unchanging.  Only the responses changed.  As if the music onstage were a drama, the listener waited for something to change but what?  When the conductor again raised his baton into "attention" mode, the baton perfectly parallel to his torso and unmoving, we, the listeners and watchers, were returned to the opening measures.  That was a signal.  The "Question" was being laid to rest - apparently unanswered. Only the distant strings remained but they soon faded into oblivion and the piece ended in silence.


An American in Paris

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde was an opportunity for Mr. Wolff to display a little of his remarkable conducting style.  However, Gershwin's jazzier sound in An American in Paris was the perfect score for demonstrating how Hugh Wolff uses his whole body to conduct.  I can't begin to explain why his full body movements and dance rhythms brought me such delight.  Filled with joy, I smiled from ear to ear and my whole body began to laugh. 

An American in Paris so effectively captures the sense of crowds on the streets of Paris- noisy cars passing by, honking and an expectation that everyone might suddenly, spontaneously break into song and dance.  Gershwin's piece is passionate and lively and features many orchestral sections including saxaphone, trumpet, brass and percussion / tympany.

One of my favorite moments was the ending  I watched the percussionist prepare his beautiful cymbals for an explosion of sound, then quickly dampen them and turn to the snare drum to close.  As if his movements and musical contributions were the center of the music, this artist performed intently and with precision, as did all the other members of the orchestra.


Thanks to the NEC

The NEC Symphony is well-known and loved by its fans who attend their concerts regularly.  That Hugh Wolff is able to create such a high level of quality with NEC students is a testament to what NEC offers the Boston community. 


Posted: Mar 12, 2014     Nancy J Conrad


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