in: Reviews

March 6, 2017

Declaiming and Serenading From BBBS

by

Howard Frazin (file photo)

Under continuing leadership of Steven Lipsitt, an all-strings formation of the Bach, Beethoven and Brahms Society Orchestra continued its first full season following the demise of its antecedent Boston Classical Orchestra. On Sunday afternoon at Faneuil Hall, Kim Kashkashian joined as soloist in the premiere of a viola concerto by local composer (and 3BSO composer in residence) Howard Frazin.

The orchestra began with a nod to one of its namesakes in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048. This is perhaps the most popular of the six (a generation ago one could have said that without qualification, but No. 5 has been pulling up on the outside). While hardly a period band, 3BSO and Lipsitt staged it with some degree of authenticity, using one instrument on a part, with players (other than cellos) standing on the Faneuil Hall stage (the full 6-6-4-3-2 orchestra sat on the auditorium floor for the remaining works), and Lipsitt leading from the “harpsichoid” (an electronic keyboard made up like a small console). As the instrumentation comprises three each of violins, violas and cellos, plus continuo (in this case bass and keyboard), the sound of this concerto has a decidedly dark quality, of which Lipsitt took full advantage. The opening movement came at a moderately crisp tempo, with just the right amount of springiness, with solo lines tossed delectably from player to player. The slow movement (what slow movement, right?) was, as Bach probably intended, an improvisatory cadenza-like passage (in this case quite brief) in the keyboard with minimal string support, modest but effective. The finale was chipper but could have used a bit more bounce.

Frazin noted that his Concerto for Viola and String Orchestra grew out an elegy and a rondo of a memorial nature he had written for viola and piano, which in this concerto form he prefaced with a movement called “Declamation” (we’ll spare you his vaguely agitprop apologia). The resultant work proved quite handsome in tones serious but far less somber than one might have imagined.

As it happened, Allan Kozinn wrote in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about John Adams’s 1985 Harmonielehre. “It proposes,” Kozinn averred, “an alternative universe in which the harmonic richness and brooding anxieties of late Romanticism…evolved directly into the consonant, rhythmically pointed experiments of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, bypassing Serialism as if it had never happened.” One had a similar impression listening to Frazin’s concerto: while he does not, indeed, draw as Adams does on minimalism, his music has definitely willed a substantial part of the 20th century and its latter-day echoes out of existence, including, one might add, the cross-cutting film-music esthetic of much current neo-tonal writing. In other words, he presents lucid musical ideas, in a somewhat evolved tonal idiom, and develops them in ways most people trained in listening to music written before World War II would find intelligible.

“Declamations” presented and elaborated on a, well, declamatory motif in a moderate tempo with the earnestness and directness, and with more than a soupçon of the affect, of Samuel Barber’s three Essays for orchestra. The solo line was lush and sonorous, as befits the instrument, and Kashkashian was forthright and emotive in pursuing its argument. The movement was fairly short, and while there may have been some secondary material, its chief drawback from an esthetic standpoint was a lack of contrast; but this may have been intentional, given its expository purpose. Elegy also develops from a single motif, though with clearly contrasting lyrical passages, alternating with touching sweetness and rue. One is here brought to mind of Gerald Finzi’s haunting reveries and delicate dissonances, minus of course their overt Englishness. Because of its elegiac origins, the concluding Rondo is not of the rollicking sort, but rather opens with a gentle, rolling tune in 6/8, with a Finzian sound and at a pace one might find in a Mozart rondo. The contrasting episodes, growing organically from the main material, also present issues of contrast, and the whole work comes to a soft and fairly abrupt end. There is little overt virtuoso material for the soloist (which is OK considering the tenor of the work as a whole, though it might as a practical matter impede its marketability), but Kashkashian compensated with passionate sincerity and dark refulgence. Deferential while the soloist was playing, the orchestra provided a substantial commentary on the solo and, under Lipsitt’s secure baton, a uniform and handsome package for the whole. The Frazin concerto is worth hearing again.

Lipsitt’s post-break fundraising pitch came in the form of an entertaining medley, with himself on clarinet. The delightfully presented money-related tunes from the American songbook (he characterized them as coming in graded donor categories), “Pennies from Heaven,” “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” “I Found a Million-Dollar Baby in a Five-and-Ten-Cent Store,” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” must have enabled them to raked it in.

The afternoon closed with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C Major, op. 48, a mainstay for string orchestra. Lipsitt led a solid and satisfying take: he derived excellent balanced sonorities and forward momentum in the opening Sonatina, nice bounce (especially in the Scotch snaps) and line separation in the waltz, superb phrase control in the elegy, and in the finale a gentle touch with the introductory statement of the Russian tune before its jolly working-out.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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