In a recent Boston radio broadcast, Classical Radio WCRB host Cathy Fuller (www.classicalwcrb.org) introduced a recording of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto (with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Berlin Philharmonic) by declaring: “Here comes a big slice of wonderful!” Fuller’s joyous introduction is also the perfect way to describe a recent concert held at New England Conservatory of Music’s Jordan Hall, where a galvanizing performance delivered “big slices of wonderful!” to all those lucky to be in attendance.
On Monday, December 5th, the 32nd season of artistic director (and cellist extraordinaire) Laurence Lesser’s First Monday at Jordan Hall [www.necmusic.edu] brought the visionary sounds of South America to Jordan Hall. Many of the performers were either members of NEC’s current faculty or alumni returning to their alma mater (as happens quite frequently at First Monday concerts). The first part of this evening’s program focused on the dance and sparkle of Brazilian music: the flowing passion and bountiful folk tunes contained in Heitor Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 and the carefree sway of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s luminescent songs.
The Villa-Lobos piece is a celebration of the cello incarnate. The cellists in this performance (all alumni of NEC and representative of many nations in South America) swayed beautifully as one collective unit in full flight. The performance was highlighted by several interwoven and sweetly singing solos. A particularly wonderful moment came when cellist Andres Diaz soared high and expressive in a shimmering solo (glowing with sweetness -as in a lullaby) in the “Preludio” movement. The final movement, “Fuga”, was propelled on a Bach- inspired whirlwind of short melodies and quick bowing. A singular pattern was launched and repeated vigorously by each pair of cellists with great drama and athleticism. The piece ended with its last held note flung upwards in a gleeful launch of warm, resiny bravado by this marvelous cast of cellists.
The celebration of the cello continued with the special appearance of cellist and NEC alumni, Jaques Morelenbaum, and his wife, vocalist Paula Morelenbaum, in a ravishing recital of Antonio Carlos Jobim compositions. The Morelenbaums are legends in Brazil for their carrying on the glory of Jobim’s music. I have highlighted in these pages their superb recordings, including their transfixing Casa [Sony Classical] and A Day In New York [Sony Classical], both recordings done with their long term partner, pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto. These recordings contain dexterous and stunningly beautiful interpretations of Jobim’s music in the fascinating context of cello and voice interplay. Their sonics are also superb, particularly in ensnaring the delicate interplay of this supremely assured band performing in a tactile and airy acoustic space.
It was an astonishing treat to get the opportunity to hear the Morelenbaums perform in concert in Jordan Hall, joined by their sympathetic partners from Brazil: guitarist Caio Afiune and drummer Rafael Barata. The music was the epitome of sweetness, lithe beauty and musical comradeship. Jaques Morelenbaum’s cello was bright, songful and curvaceous and Paula Morelenbaum’s voice was elegant and effortless (her voice swirling like smoke curlicues into the airy space of Jordan Hall). Paula’s voice was an instrument of fluid athleticism and her artful pitch control allowed her to perch on any branch in her expressive vocal range with playful ease.
The Morelenbaums have a long and illustrious history of singing, playing and touring with Carlos Jobim (1916-2013) and in their music, they effortlessly capture the expressive richness of Jobim’s radiant music. For instance, on Jobim’s sumptuous and burbling songs, “Desafinado” and “Aguas de Marco”, Paula sang fancifully (with beautiful relaxed phrasing) next to the purr of percussive grooves from Barata’s brushwork and Afiune’s soft guitar plucks. In contrast, on Jobim’s pungent ballad, “Insensate”, her vocals descended rich and glowing next to Jaques’ cello, played with particular emphasis on long held notes that started soft and swelled in passionate crescendos. At the end of their riveting set, the adoring audience would not let the band off the stage. They returned for several encores (grinning ear to ear in heartfelt appreciation) and the encores included exuberant versions of Jobim’s “A Felicidade” and his sly “She’s A Carioca” (with Paula’s voice floating above all the wondrous frolicking drama with playful intonations).
For another delicious taste of the entwining magic of Carlos Jobim’s music, grab a copy of vocalist Natalie Dietz’s sprite and artful EP from 2013 (www.nataliedietz.com) in which Dietz does a wondrous slow-brewing arrangement of Jobim’s “Corcovado,” accompanied by pianist Aaron Parks, guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Josh Crumbly and drummer Justin Brown. Dietz also studied at NEC and brings a lithe, flexible and open vocal presence to her radiant songs and arrangements. The EP also includes originals filled with Dietz’s graceful and expressive vocals which rove and shimmer alongside her band’s creative and delicate partnership.
The second half of this concert at NEC celebrated the music of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) who was greatly influenced by the natural beauty of his country, in particular, the remote highland desert area of Argentina known as “La Puna.” The incomparable flutist Paula Robinson (also an NEC faculty member) opened this part of the program with a short spirited solo performance of a piece that Ginastera wrote especially for her late in his life, (although it remains incomplete due to his death in 1983). The piece delivered a hauntingly rustic theme that floated on the delicate streams of air and notes from Robinson’s expressive flute. The theme rose and fell in slow cascades of notes contrasted with stark, silvery high soars and penetrating holds.
Robinson was then joined by the dynamic Borromeo String Quartet (“Borromeo”) in Ginastera’s Impresiones de la Puna. This piece contained a final “Danza” which erupted in high fluttering flute runs (like shooting stars cascading through darkness) supported below by deep plucks and crisp folk melodies from the string chorus.
The Borromeo is celebrating its 25 anniversary as one of the premier string ensembles of our time. Listening to their technical and expressive artistry over the years of their performances at NEC, it is plain that the four members of the Borromeo collectively possess that uncanny telepathy that makes for great string quartet reveling. Their performance of Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 2 (that concluded this sensational First Monday concert) was a case in point. In this piece, Ginastera throws down a technical and expressive gauntlet that is spellbinding. The piece contains “Allegro Rustico” and “Furioso” movements that are filled with ferocious finger twisting passagework and string-snapping pizzicatos. In contrast to this unkept beauty, the piece also contains an “Adagio Angoscioso” movement in which a bracing calm abides on ghostly string holds and light plucks. The Borromeo navigated all of these challenging and expressive waters with technical brilliance and aplomb, always finding interstitial details to explore amongst the fiery or the calm. Another highlight was the “Presto Magico” movement, which illustrated perfectly how the Borromeo’s collective voice speaks as One – even while each individual player explores the landscape of their own scores with deep emotional connection. The “Presto” was propelled by great sweeps of strident bowing from violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong (sometimes sliding down bracingly from their highest registers to their lowest) and deep scampering bowing from violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist Yeesun Kim (at times using their bows to hit their bridges to create a skittish dry sound of scattering bones). Even with all of these powerful cross current rhythms and colors, the glowing lyrical majesty of this movement came through beautifully in the Borromeo’s performance. The audience followed each step transfixed, all the way to the last bars of Ginastera’s brilliant creation, where there is a final moment of silence before one last resonant pluck is struck in unison into the stratosphere beyond.
For another “big slices of wonderful!” heard at NEC’s Jordan Hall, check out my review of a recent big band jazz concert by the NEC Jazz Orchestra, (joined by intrepid saxophonist Donny McCaslin), featured in Downbeat at http://downbeat.com/news/detail/schaphorst-mccaslin-honor-friends-mentors-at-nec.