Reviews ...

Conductor Wyner has Another Triumph with String Ensemble

... like opening night of a new play

Jackie Wattenberg

Going to a concert of the New England String Ensemble these days is like going to an opening night of a great playwright's new play. There is excitement in the air, engendered by the programming of this season's new conductor, Susan Davenny Wyner.

What new or little heard work will she bring forth? What new life will she offer to traditional music? Having followed this fine and unusual orchestra of strings from their very beginnings, this writer feels sure of its original excellence, but also hears the added impact of programming and interpretation that the dynamic Wyner provides.

Last weekend's concert held in the beautiful, gold-arched First Parish Church by the lake in Wakefield, the second of this season, gave us a colorful, very modern "Orfeo II, an Improvisation on a Theme for Flute and Strings," by Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave, and a little heard work by Aaron Jay Kernis that is enthralling, "Musica Celestis." Tara Helen O'Connor was the flutist extraordinaire.

Traditionalists who grow a little nervous with contemporary music certainly enjoyed the opening Mozart Divertimento, K. 138. Knowing that Wyner earlier had a career as a soprano, perhaps we read into her phrasing the singer's ability to give a nuance of pressing into a phrase gently, increasing its volume slightly and again withdrawing a little. Whatever, she manages to give charm and grace to Mozart's forms, making the music sing, and in the final Presto advancing the playful tossing about of the themes.

A good music station's playing of the Kernis Celestial Music several months ago awakened me to this young composer, now 39, just beginning to be more appreciated. Broad waves of ethereal tones crescendo, rise to a searing intensity (recalling the intensity of moments in Shostakovich's fifth symphony), then diminishing gradually to serene horizons.

Adapted from a string quartet composed in 1990, this movement was said by Kernis to be inspired by medieval "imagery of angels singing God's praises eternally." Lovely, enchanting music.

Thea Musgrave's "Orfeo" was more daring and innovative. Born in 1928, she was present here to introduce her music, in bright snd vigorous manner. The Orpheus tale is described with unusual effect--an airy sound evoking realms of fog and mists by the musicians striking the bow close to the bridge, and slashing the strings furiously in Orfeo's later disastrous encounters.

Flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, impressive in her long list of performances throughout our country and Europe, ran the gamut with great dexterity and spirit from beautiful flowing lines, rapid runs of astonishing alacrity, sometimes agitation, to passages of jazzy-like slurring glissandos. Perched behind the orchestra, concertmaster Gregory Vitale made exquisite and too appealing the voice of Euridice, causing Orfeo-flute to turn to see her, thereby losing her.

Composer Musgrave said she likes "works with drama," and noted that "composers love to write angry music!" "Orfeo" bears much drama, color and challenging atmospheric effects. It brought a standing ovation.

Conductor Wyner brilliantly commanded the string ensemble version of Beethoven's  String Quartet in F Minor, Opus 95, arranged by Mahler. It was a bit of a surprise to learn from the notes that "Mahler was a life-long devotee of Beethoven." This quartet made stirring music for the dynamic conductor, who expressed its shifting moods and movements with her shrewd insights and sensitivities. A pianist friend sitting nearby still felt he prefers the original four-person quartet, in which the voices can be more individual, even personal. The mood of a quartet is of course of greater intimacy.

Several of the Ensemble players were impressive during the evening's program, principal cellist Emmanuel Friedman and principal violist Jennifer Stirling among them.

The group's next program will be on February 4, in the year 2000.

December 3, 1999

Originally published in

Reprinted in the Melrose Mirror with permission of the Melrose Free Press.


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