Reviews ...

NESE Draws Large, Enthusiastic Crowd

... their special sound is catching on

by Jackie Wattenberg

If you build a better mousetrap, so it's said, crowds will come sprinting to your door.

Well, the New England String Ensemble has built a better orchestra than most, and distinctive in being all strings, and now the throngs are rushing to their concert doors. Friday evening in Wakefield's First Parish Church a rather light but charming program drew more than 200 admiring listeners, assuring that their special sound is catching on. On Sunday, they performed the same program in Cambridge, with another enthusiastic audience.

There is, of couse, a special quality to their new conductor this year -- Susan Davenny Wyner -- and it is a warmth that pervades her conducting, her manner of leaping up and down the aisle, and in her words to her audience about certain pieces. She is an energetic woman who feels the sensibility, the spirit of the music she is interpreting and projects it with uncompromising directness.

Friday's program wasn't so astonishing as the earlier program with a Shoshtakovich symphony, but there was something for everybody -- Sibelius, Haydn, Grieg, Bela Bartok and Nino Rota, who composed scores for films. And this was the evening to present the winner of the annual Youth Concerto Competition, 15-year-old Lisa Park, who demonstrated a fine talent for a young girl, a soaring tone in the Haydn C Major concerto, good information and a feeling for interpreting the varied colors of each movement.

The beautiful Sibelius Romance in C Major began the program, a melancholy piece despite the major key setting, building gently a fabric of searching, hoping that gives in to frustration and loss, but sweetly. The five movements of Grieg's Holberg Suite offered rich contrasts that Conductor Wyner delineated affectingly, making this work a highlight of the evening for me.

Bela Bartok's Rumanian Dances, arranged for strings by Arthur Willner, were seven colorfully varied expressions of Rumanian dance and melody. Excellent program notes by Steven Ledbetter relate how long and hard Bartok worked to collect folk melodies from rural Rumania, vocal and instrumental, many here included. Rhythms and spirit vibrate fetchingly, with little of the daring dissonance that is to me an attraction of Bartok but may have scared away some who wince at such idioms.

A little heard work by Nino Rota, Concerto for Strings, was bright with dynamic color and romantic sheaths of melodies. He was best known as a cpmposer for films -- in his native Italy work of Fellini and Zeffirelli ("Romeo and Juliet," for one) also for Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather." The conductor first told the audience that in this music she senses "landscapes and adventure," as in films. The opening of Preludio to me was simply dreamy, with an easy lilt, the scherzo frisky with sharply accented pizzacato.

It was the finale that began with explosive spurts recalling a bit of Shostakovich that called to mind film drama, adventure of riders on horses, perhaps, galloping to rescue the heroine from the barricaded fortress.

Surprisingly, a couple of calls at concert's end, with a standing ovation, demanding an "Encore!" actually brought a "Lullaby" by Gershwin, a serene piece smooth as a silky stole, though with little of the unpredictable/impudent harmony that makes Gershwin so marvelous.

Feb. 10, 2000

Reprinted with permission of the Melrose Free Press.

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