New England Philharmonic’s family concert nicely varies the holiday mix

December 11, 2023 at 12:37 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Matthew Wardell conducted the New England Philharmonic on Sunday.

Most of the time, the New England Philharmonic sticks with the new or recent; when they veer from that formula, it’s typically for a good reason. 

One of those came along Sunday afternoon in the form of “Music and Mystery,” the orchestra’s annual family concert at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center.

For the event, the NEP and guest conductor Matthew Wardell looked a bit further back than usual (by NEP standards, at least), presenting works by Mozart and Sibelius alongside the Boston premiere of Jordan Kuspa’s Mystery of the Missing Music.

Kuspa’s score takes the concept of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and turns it on its head. Not so much a showcase of every instrument in the group as a snapshot of the people who play them, it follows a pair of intrepid young detectives looking for a new work whose score and parts have mysteriously disappeared days before its first performance.

In the course of about half-an-hour, they meet one representative from each orchestral family, learn about their non-musical interests, and find out a bit about how an orchestra works and is run. By the end, the duo recovers the music and everybody gets to hear the premiere of a sweeping march.

It’s an inviting effort, with hints of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and Enola Holmes, even if the libretto (which Kuspa also wrote) is a bit wordy and tangential. Nevertheless, the orchestral writing is sure and idiomatic, and the concluding “premiere” boasts more than a little John Williams-worthy élan.

Wardell and the NEP took to Mystery with evident relish. Periodically there were some balance issues, the orchestra almost covering the score’s dialogue.

Overall, though, Sunday’s was a lively and engaged performance. The last qualities certainly applied to the delivery of the show’s stars, actors Lila Gurry and Hanna Nocon, who dispatched the respective roles of detectives Gemma and Jake Nye with aplomb.

Also impressive were the afternoon’s instrumental soloists, both of whom were winners of the NEP’s 2023 Young Artist Competition.

Pianist Henry Tushman delivered a lively, dancing account of the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. This is music that’s rightly famous for its tunefulness, and the pianist certainly got its lyrical moments to sing.

Yet it was the steady rhythmic energy and clear voicings he drew from his part that really helped to bring this favorite to life. In their accompaniments, Wardell and the NEP matched Tushman smartly and securely.

The ensemble was on less secure footing in the first movement of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto: the brilliant play of orchestral colors in this 1904 score sounded drab and tentative. At one point just before the end, some confusion in the ensemble threatened to derail the coda. But Wardell righted the ship and violinist Sophie Tung was always in command of the solo part.

Playing with beautiful, silken tone and spot-on intonation, the seventeen-year-old demonstrated a firm command of the notes as well as some real interpretive insights. Among the highlights of her reading was the inward, trance-like atmosphere Tung conjured over the music’s opening bars as well as her fiery take on the movement’s cadenza.

The New England Philharmonic plays music by Wang Lu, Charles Ives, David Sanford, Kati Agócs, and John Harbison at 3 p.m. March 3 at Tsai Performance Center.

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