A festive young orchestra plays at Jordan Hall

Evan Kahn, cellist

Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, an orchestral “impression” inspired by Mallarmé’s damply impenetrable poem on memory, is one of those historical focal points after which the evolutionary course of music has never sounded the same. I have already spoken about it analytically in these pages. [HERE]. A good performance, like yesterday’s, will help convey how Debussy worked on Wildlife for an entire year, even though it’s only 110 bars and nine minutes, and why it made so many dynamic changes afterwards, and why, when it premiered, it had to be repeated. I can also tell you that it is not difficult to play from an orchestral point of view (with the exception of the solo flute) but it poses considerable challenges for the baton. (See Frederik Prausnitz’s careful instructions and indications, in Elliott W. Galkin, A history of conducting in theory and practicePendragon Press, 1988, pp. 792-822.) I edited the three books on this well-chosen program.

Tchaikovsky’s many works in the concerto genre have always been among his most popular, though in none of them does he seem truly comfortable writing virtuosically. Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33 (1876), are a special case; the most commonly heard version was extensively rewritten and made up by German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, Tchaikovsky’s dubious colleague who played the first. (An irate Tchaikovsky eventually agreed to the revisions, albeit reluctantly.) Sunday’s soloist Evan Kahn made the most of the furious solo, especially in the warmly contemplative D minor variation. He dwelt too dramatically on the exaggerated cadences, but his tone was firm and on point, and he handled the excessive amount of high registers (Tchaikovsky’s weakness) with confidence.

Beethoven’s First Symphony has been called the best symphony ever written by Haydn, and we can all understand why that label is apt. (Put that into perspective with age: Beethoven was two years older when he wrote his first symphony than Schubert was when he wrote his last and greatest symphony.) But Beethoven’s no. 2 in D major, op. 36, composed in 1802, creates a radiant new world of its own. You can identify Haydn and Mozart as ancestors, but the Second is all Beethoven, and she is cheerful, exuberant, witty, optimistic even in a time of personal despair — for Beethoven recognized that he was gradually and irretrievably losing his ‘hearing. It reveals an astonishing formal audacity: the very long introduction Adagio molto and the virtuoso Allegro con brio that follows; the delightfully lyrical slow movement framed in a dramatic sonata; a Scherzo full of orchestral laughter; and a finale beginning with a melody that would have smothered Mozart.

The Boston Festival Orchestra, pre-romantic in size, has 11-10-10-8-3 standard strings and winds, though not all of them were there yesterday. Conductor Alyssa Wang co-founded the ensemble which includes many recent graduates from the NEC and other local venues with clarinetist Nicholas Brown. The cheers testified to the enthusiastic support of contemporaries and friends, and they echoed with full justice even in a sparsely attended Jordan Hall. This summer orchestra deserves and will surely get more attention from Boston’s older symphony cohort. Last year, BFO filled the much smaller Calderwood Hall three times.

From where my comps placed me, top far left, very close to the stage, the woodwinds often sounded too loud; the strings seemed to send their sound downwards. The swell at m. 19 by Debussy Wildlife fell too literally F (it’s really the composer’s fault), but blending into the central ff (m. 70) brought out the cross-rhythms well, and this rendition seemed well balanced overall. I felt that even in the outside passages (mm. 46-47) where Debussy, as usual, liked to introduce important new thematic material by keeping it in the background, not exactly hidden. And Allison Parramore’s flute solos were superbly performed.

The balance between soloist and orchestra seemed more problematic in the Tchaikovsky. Especially in the high passages — Tchaikovsky/Fitzenhagen over-wrote — it was hard to hear the cello, overwhelmed by the orchestra. But the slower expressive variations compensated for these in tone.

Alyssa Wang, conductor

I would only fault the performance of Beethoven Symphony for its aggressiveness – often too strong and, especially in the finale, too fast. Part of that, I think, comes from the conservatory training that seems to be the rule these days; you can see it, and hear it, in the gyrations of the string quartet playing, and it reverberates through the orchestra. The results aren’t necessarily unfortunate, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with that advice. But I think a really mature classic orchestral sound should come back from fff to a fort ff attack in many cases, which tells you that it is sometimes more difficult to play a full turn F than what too often looks like a mezzo-fortissimo. to mm. 334-335 in Beethoven’s finale there is a full orchestra ff on a half-cadence in D major, with a pause. This is followed by a p half cadence in B minor. You want to have a split second for the sound to die out (normally indicated by ‘) in order to hear the contrast, but the timpani roll sounded too long. And to mm. 372-373 there is a shot ff, one of my favorite examples of a “devastating augmented sixth chord” (Beethoven wrote A-flat in the bass but it should be G-sharp). Whatever the spirit of the overflowing finish, we want more time to sniff the flowers.

Alyssa Wang conducts with a graceful and very precise but still developing technique. His left hand reflects the stick too much, needing to show more independence for cueing and especially for dynamic control. But she has her eyes on the orchestra all the time. She conducts from miniature scores, which is far better than trying to conduct without a score, and hats off to that, for she gave abundant and appropriate attention to detail, with an economical pace.

The two remaining concerts in this series (July 24e and 31st at Jordan Hall) include a concerto for flautist Allison Parramore. Yesterday’s performance gave a sparkling testament to what this energetic, already polished and young band can do.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy and other early 20th century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he published on many musical subjects and edited the fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) revised editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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