Music as “truth to power” is a running theme this year in both Boston and Chicago, with the New England Conservatory and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra coincidentally presenting unrelated festivals under the same title. NEC’s is by far the more wide-ranging, with the school’s many departments chiming in with more than 30 concerts spanning works from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony to Michael Colgrass’s “Winds of Nagual.”
A skeptic might wonder whether a festival sweeping together so much music with varyingly direct links to so many spheres of protest — social, political, cultural, aesthetic — runs the risk of subverting its own intended focus. But plenty of other concertgoers will be simply grateful for the patina of coherence that “Music: Truth to Power” brings to the school’s abundance of concert offerings this season, a handful of them with hard-to-find repertoire, and most of them completely free.
On Wednesday night in Jordan Hall, the American premiere of Tan Dun’s Concerto for Orchestra drew a large crowd and served as the festival’s high-profile point of departure. Written last year, the piece is a refashioning of material from Tan’s opera “Marco Polo,” which premiered in Germany in 1996.
As a Chinese composer who immigrated to the United States and has spent much of his career negotiating between Eastern and Western musical worlds, Tan has described a sense of identification with the opera’s title character, a Venetian who, many centuries ago, made a similar journey in reverse. The four movements of the Concerto — with titles such as “Light of Timespace,” “Scent of Bazaar,” and “Raga of Desert” — hint at what Tan, in a program note, describes as the “geographic, musical and spiritual” dimensions of Polo’s travels.
And yet, how to evoke this all through music is of course far trickier. The piece opens with a mesmerizing series of trombone glissandi suggesting a Western brass section in a funhouse mirror. The slides are then echoed by the strings and passed around the orchestra, sometimes produced with the ghostly (unbowed) sound of fingers on strings alone. The score abounds in such unusual effects, including the players’ whispered vocalizations from the stage. Overall, the concerto has many moments, reflecting much of what is best in Tan’s output, in which he conveys the transporting power of ancient ritual through a modern and rhythmically charged musical language. But other extended stretches of this score’s inner movements take up a less disciplined and integrated approach, and the work can feel at times like a wearying parade of exotic musical flourishes.
What remained constant was the conductor Hugh Wolff’s focus and exacting execution. Wolff, who led performances of the work last year with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, here drew an impressively committed reading from the NEC Philharmonia, with the woodwinds shining particularly brightly in a set of demanding solos Tan writes into the third movement. After intermission the conductor led a muscular and spirited reading of Brahms’s First Symphony.
“Music: Truth to Power” runs through the end of April, when Wolff and the orchestra will return to Symphony Hall with a program of works by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.