in: Reviews

November 22, 2008

Standards Bookended Anachronisms

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Too rarely are true oddities mixed into the standard fare that characterize a “classical orchestra.”  In the case of the Boston Classical Orchestra’s latest offering, on November 22 in Faneuil Hall, the mix was impressively odd – starting with the serpent.

A late Renaissance instrument, the serpent looks like a large, wooden “S” designed by an overenthusiastic scribe and sounds rather like a small starter-alphorn with holes.  Its range is narrow, its tone-color without much variety, and its intonation very difficult to control, even for an exceptionally skilled player like Douglas Yeo, the featured soloist on the program. It seemed he had to call on all his considerable abilities just to make the thing sound musical.  Perhaps it was the instrument’s limitations that also prompted composer Gordon Bowie to write such safe music for it.  His Old Dances in New Shoes for serpent and strings (the second piece on the program) was billed as a neo-Baroque suite, but had more often the flavor of a set from the 1930s Dance-band Era.  The music itself was well-crafted, pleasant, humorous, and altogether rather unadventurous; I found myself wishing the composer had taken more creative advantage of the layers of anachronisms that the work represented.

Anachronism continued after the intermission when Yeo returned to show off an early 19th-century brass instrument called the ophicleide in an aria from G.F. Handel’s early 18th-century masque Acis and Galatea.  Looking like the accidental offspring of a trombone and a baritone sax and sounding like a rough-edged euphonium, it seemed an appropriate substitute for the cyclops Polyphemus, the character for whom the aria “O ruddier than the cherry” is actually written.  Despite some technical blips, Yeo managed to render it with the appropriate operatic flair.

The concert opened with the three-movement Symphony No. 10 by F.J. Haydn.  Though an early work, it hints at the cleverly sophisticated yet charmingly accessible wit that was to characterize Haydn’s music in the years to come.  It seemed, however, that music director Steven Lipsitt decided to smooth out most of the musical dips and turns in favor of a general “gallantness” that at times sold the music short.  The playing was lovely, bright, and sprightly, yet somewhat grayed-over by a certain sameness in articulation.

This issue became even more apparent in the work that closed the concert, W.A. Mozart’s Symphony No. 29.  Although written when he was not quite 20, it represents the composer in early musical maturity and demonstrates the passionate yet refined emotional drama Mozart could so brilliantly capture in his music.  Yet the elements that do so-contrasts, delicacy, and nuance-must also be captured by the performers; and while the playing here was spirited and enthusiastic, it did not quite release the complete potential of the elegant fervor that lies within this music.

In addition to the programmed works, the audience was treated to two unexpected gems: a cleverly written fugue by Lipsitt on the initials H.E.D. (for BCO founder Harry Ellis Dickson); and an arrangement of “Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?” for clarinet (played by Lipsitt) and strings, offered as the most convincing fundraising appeal I’ve ever encountered.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as
chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds
a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

1 Comment

  1. I wish I had heard this concert. The serpent and the ophicleide (whose name comes from Greek for “serpent”, the ophidian kind, and “key” respectively) are both, along with the wooden cornetto, in the family of bastard instruments which use fingerhole systems like woodwinds but are sounded through a cup mouthpiece like brass. The serpent is so shaped that all the fingerholes, spaced increasingly farther apart through the total length, are all located more or less within easy reach of the player’s fingers. As for the ophicleide, which has keywork and pads like a saxophone, you can find parts for it in Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and the earliest Wagner operas, but they are universally played on the tuba today. I seem to recall that Gordon Jacob’s Variations on “Annie Laurie,” which he wrote for one of the Hoffnung Festival concerts, had a part for at least one serpent, and I have an LP of an “Air Varié” by Hyacinthe Klosé for ophicleide and piano; it sounds like an out-of-tune euphonium.

    Comment by Ophelia Clyde — November 25, 2008 at 3:58 pm

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