NEC Philharmonia + Hugh Wolff: Frank, Lutosławski, Rachmaninoff

NEC: Jordan Hall | Directions

290 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA
United States

NEC Philharmonia, Hugh Wolff conductor, perform Gabriela Lena Frank's Escaramuza, Lutosławski's Cello Concerto with cello soloist Leland Ko '24 AD, and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances.

From Hugh Wolff: Millennia ago, before the invention of music or the written word, a prehistoric human likely picked up a stick and banged on a hollow log for the sheer joy of it. If rhythm is the first step toward music, then repeated notes are the first step toward melody. This concert features three works that start with these fundamentals and build into structures of imagination, complexity, and richness. Gabriela Lena Frank gets us in the mood with a furious bass drum solo, Witold Lutosławski builds an entire concerto from slowly repeated D’s, and Sergei Rachmaninoff starts with a simple repeated-note figure that morphs into a menacing ostinato.

This is an in-person event with a private stream available to the NEC community here:

  • Leland Ko '24 AD, cello
  1. Gabriela Lena Frank | Escaramuza (2010)

    Program note

    Escaramuza, which signifies "skirmish" in the Spanish language, is inspired by the kachampa music of Andean Perú. Celebrating the pre-Hispanic Inca warrior, the kachampa dance is executed by athletic men who convey a triumphant, even joyful, spirit. Inspired by the kachampa dances done with fast-snapping ropes that I've witnessed in Perú, especially in Paucartambo during the Virgen de la Carmen festival, I've created a brightly chiseled romp in an asymmetrical 7/8 rhythm that is launched after an extended bass drum solo. Through most of Escaramuza, no section of the ensemble is allowed to rest for long, maintaining the high energy typical of kachampas.
    - Gabriela Lena Frank

  2. Witold Lutosławski | Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1970)

    played without pause

    Four Episodes

    Program note

    Witold Lutosławski wrote his Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered it in London with the Bournemouth Symphony. Leland Ko , this evening’s soloist, has written this personal note about the music:

    I’ve had a hard time containing my excitement about this piece.  When Hugh Wolff reached out to me at the end of last year to decide on a concerto, Lutosławski’s was a logical conclusion — we both had interest in it, its popularity has been growing recently, and, at least in my thinking, for various reasons there is no piano reduction for this concerto, so the chance to learn the piece with orchestra was an opportunity I felt I had to take.
          What I did not expect was just how obsessed I would become with this concerto.  I vaguely understood that it was a unique piece, but what I soon found out was that it was like learning a new language which was able to communicate something extremely potent with me even as I was still trying to hash out its vocabulary, grammar, and at times even just its alphabet.  This concerto is devoid of barlines, and is instead full of obsessive repeated units, frequently in odd numbers, grotesque glissandi and quarter tones, and bursts of energy interspersed with silence.  But perhaps the most notable feature is Lutosławski’s frequent use of the aleatoric method (structured randomness… or perhaps controlled chaos?), in which the orchestra is given various units to play, but the “when” and “how often” are left up to the conductor and each player.

          What results from this is a story that follows a very clear emotional arc from an intense stillness and uneasiness, to several episodes of increasing anxiety, to unhinged suffering and terror, and ultimately to intense determination and resilience.  Lutosławski said that personal and political events did not directly influence his music, but also acknowledged that they did invade his creative process.  Though there is no explicit narrative or political event to which it relates, it may be worth noting that this concerto was written in 1970 following several years of Polish troops and the Soviet regime suppressing liberal reforms and protests, and also the death of his mother — not to mention that Lutosławski himself was born to a democratic and politically active family just before the Russian Revolution, had lived through both World Wars, had enlisted in the army as a radio operator and escaped capture by German soldiers, and had lost his father and both his brothers to war or regime.  Perhaps this helps explain the feeling that this concerto is about one against many, about the individual against society: every idea, every voice, every bit of resilience that the solo cello has is met by the orchestra rudely interrupting it, harassing it, creating fear, and even drowning it out.
          I have always seen this concerto listed in concert programs as having four continuous movements — Introduction (Cadenza), Four Episodes, Cantilena, and Finale — and while no such explicit delineations nor their movement titles exist in the score, they’ve helped me organize the piece in my own head.  The concerto opens with the cello alone: a five-minute cadenza book-ended and interspersed with repeated open Ds, filled in with rustlings and bursts of energy that have various markings from the composer — indifferente (indifferent), grazioso (graceful), un poco buffo ma con eleganza (a little funny but with elegance), marciale (march-like) — but that are perhaps shaded more than anything by the intensity and insanity of being alone.  Towards the end of the cadenza, the spell is broken by three trumpets, and the cello consequently enters into the world.
          The four episodes that follow are each established with a set of pizzicati from the solo cello, and all devolve into frantic repetition before being interrupted by the brass.  The first episode begins with a certain degree of wonder, and the cello takes its time tentatively inspecting the new world around it.  In the second episode, duplets turn into triplets as the cello becomes more anxious, as if skirting around or trying to avoid something.  By the third episode, the triplets become quadruplets and the cello reaches full running speed and full fear.  The fourth episode turns in a more rhythmic and determined direction, as if the cello has found some kind of resolve, but this fire, too, is put out by the brass.
          The cello gets its first chance to interrupt the orchestra before the Cantilena, still with pizzicato, but this time forcefully and repetitively on low Es.  The cello then begins a visceral lament and chant, amidst an unhinged murmuring from the strings in the orchestra, until rising to a climax in which the orchestra converges on a single G# and drowns out the solo cello.
          I can only describe what happens next in the Finale as a total outcry.  It begins with the only major orchestral tutti in the concerto, which includes some of the most terrifying sounds I’ve ever heard an orchestra make.  Several lengthy attempts to fight back from the solo cello are interrupted by orchestral “schmears,” until finally ten repeated chords from the orchestra mark its final blows, reducing the cello to pure wailing and whimpering.  However, in a final burst of inspiration, the cello climbs all the way up to its highest registers and repeats an A until it is the only voice left — echoing the beginning of the concerto, somehow — as if the idea of freedom must continue.
          My deepest thanks to Hugh Wolff and to all the musicians on stage for taking on this concerto with me.  I can tell how much they believe in the power of this piece, and I could not be more excited to bring it to life with them tonight.
    - Leland Ko

    Leland Ko

    Leland Philip Ko (b. 1998), a cellist of Chinese-Canadian descent, is the kind of person who'salways had an overflow of energy. His restlessness has led him to various callings, fromcompetitive tennis and distance running to calligraphy and origami, but so far he’s found thatmaking music with and for others – and the process that goes into that – are the things that bestfocus his mind, and that this restlessness is what gives him an almost stubborn desire toexperience something with his audiences and colleagues every time he walks out on stage.Though he has chosen to dedicate himself to classical music, he does his best to rememberand live by a former mentor’s advice that music is about life, not the other way around.
            Leland was born and raised in the Boston area, where he studied with Kirstin Peltz, RonaldLowry, and Paul Katz. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University in German literature, beforeattending The Juilliard School for his M.M., studying with Minhye Clara Kim, Timothy Eddy, andNatasha Brofsky. He has returned to Boston to pursue an A.D. at the New EnglandConservatory with Yeesun Kim and Donald Weilerstein, and resides in the city with his11-year-old cat, Ham.

    • Leland Ko '24 AD, cello

  4. Sergei Rachmaninoff | Symphonic Dances, op. 45

    Non allegro
    Andante con moto: Tempo di valse
    Lento assai - Allegro vivace

    Program note

    The wild success of the Ballets Russes in Paris in the early 1910s and the burgeoning international career of his younger compatriot, Igor Stravinsky, did not escape the notice of Sergei Rachmaninoff. He approached Michel Fokine, choreographer of Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Petrushka, with the hope of collaborating on a ballet. Though nothing came of it at the time, the two did work together in London in 1934 on the ballet Paganini, based on the composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Then, in the summer of 1940 as war engulfed Europe, Rachmaninoff found himself a refugee, living on Long Island. Nearby, were the Fokines (as well as Vladimir Horowitz and other artists fleeing Europe). Rachmaninoff spent his days practicing piano for an upcoming tour of the United States and composing a work he called Fantastic Dances. While he had in mind the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy for the music’s premiere, he wanted Fokine to choreograph it. Rachmaninoff played his new composition on the piano for both Fokine and Ormandy, but sadly the former died before a ballet could be created. Ormandy and the Philadelphians premiered the music, now titled Symphonic Dances, in January of 1941. It was to be Rachmaninoff’s last major work; he died just two years later.
            The music has all the hallmarks of mature Rachmaninoff: deeply felt melodies, brilliantly colorful orchestration (note the alto saxophone’s prominent role in the first movement’s slow central episode), propulsive rhythm, and pervasive melancholy. The last is perhaps no surprise, given the composer’s fragile health and the catastrophe of Nazism and the Second World War. The first movement, originally titled Noon and given the highly unusual tempo Non Allegro, conjures goose-stepping soldiers and the relentless march to totalitarianism of 1940. The middle section’s aching melody has a Russian folk-song quality – the juxtaposition of the two a clear message. Toward the end of the movement, the pessimism lightens for a moment of quiet serenity before the music fades away. The middle movement (originally Twilight) opens with eerie dissonant brass chords, and a danse macabre style violin solo, before settling into a melancholy waltz with rapidly shifting moods. The third (Midnight) completes the journey from day into night. Very much in the spirit of a witches’ dance, the music has an orgiastic quality. As in the other movements, the energy subsides for a tranquil middle section, but the dance returns and builds to a frenzied apotheosis. Here Rachmaninoff quotes the Gregorian mass Dies irae chant, a life-long obsessive musical totem for him and perhaps a premonition of his own death. While Symphonic Dances received mixed reviews at its premiere, it has gradually caught on. Many now regard it as Rachmaninoff’s orchestral masterpiece: brilliant, concise, and deeply personal.                  
    – Hugh Wolff

  5. NEC Philharmonia

    First Violin
    Angela Sin Ying Chan
    Joy Wei
    Byeol Claire Kim
    Michael Fisher
    Célina Bethoux
    Hila Dahari
    Sarah Campbell
    Peixuan Wu
    Joshua Brown
    Gabriella Foster
    Caroline Smoak
    Cameron Alan-Lee
    Jiaxin Lin

    Rachel Wang

    Second Violin
    Clayton Hancock
    Nathan do Amaral Oliveira
    Tsubasa Muramatsu
    Julian Rhee
    Felicitas Schiffner
    Wangrui Ray Xu
    Darwin Chang
    Yilei Yin
    Ching Shan Helen Yu
    Arun Asthagiri
    K. J. McDonald
    Tessie Katz
    Emily Lin


    Corley Friesen-Johnson
    Chengrong Li
    Nathan Emans
    Peter Jablokow
    Sofia Beiran
    Hyelim Kong
    Aidan Garrison
    Philip Rawlinson
    Cara Pogossian
    Yi-Chia Chen
    Elton Tai


    Bennet Huang
    Annie SeEun Hyung
    Hechen Sun
    Michelle Jung
    Pi-Wei Lin
    Joanne Hwang
    Asher Kalfus
    Thomas Hung
    Lily Stern
    Andres Sanchez
    Seoyeon Koo
    Sophia Knappe

    Misha Bjerken
    Yu-Cih Chang
    Beth Ann Jones

    Yihan Wu
    Cailin Singleton
    Alyssa Peterson

    Isabel Evernham §
    Honor Hickman ‡

    Jay Kim
    Jungyoon Kim
    Elizabeth McCormack

    Anne Chao §
    Honor Hickman ‡
    Jay Kim
    Elizabeth McCormack

    Dane Bennett
    Donovan Bown
    Abigail Hope-Hull §
    Christian Paniagua ‡

    English horn
    Gwendolyn Goble

    Sarah Cho
    Xianyi Ji
    Phoebe Kuan §
    Hugo Hyeokwoo Kweon ‡
    Chasity Thompson

    Bass Clarinet
    Xianyi Ji ‡
    Cole Turkel §

    Matthew Heldt
    Carson Meritt
    Julien Rollins §
    Andrew Salaru ‡

    Garrett Comrie §
    Carson Meritt ‡

    Zeyi Tian

    French horn
    Grace Clarke
    Jihao Li §
    Graham Lovely
    Willow Otten ‡
    Noah Silverman
    Qianbin Zhu

    Eddy Lanois
    Reynolds Martin §
    Nelson Martinez ‡
    Matthew Milhalko
    Alex Prokop
    Cody York


    Eli Canales
    Jaehan Kim ‡  
    Noah Korenfeld §

    Bass Trombone
    Roger Dahlin ‡
    Scott Odou §

    Masaru Lin §
    Hayden Silvester ‡

    Michael Rogers ‡
    Lucas Vogelman §
    Zesen Wei *

    Gustavo Barreda
    Jordan Fajardo-Bird
    Eli Geruschat
    Felix Ko *
    Danial Kukuk §
    Ngaieng Lai
    Liam McManus
    Eli Reisz
    Michael Rogers ‡
    Jeff Sagurton
    Halle Hayoung Song
    Connor Willits

    Yoonsu Cha *‡
    Shaylen Joos §

    Kai-Min Chang, piano *‡
    Yujin Han, piano §
    Hyunjin Roh, celeste ‡


    Principal players
    * Frank
    ‡ Lutos
    § Rachmaninoff