Boston Classical Orchestra presented a delightful selection of early Romantic works in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall on Saturday, April 18, 2009.
Violinist Eva León, a native of Spain’s Canary Islands, made her Boston debut as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Her interpretation of this virtuoso showpiece was free of elaborate ornamentation and emphasized playful contrasts of articulation. Her personal taste has led her to prefer modern instruments and to record the violin works of 20th-century Spanish composers such as Joaquin Turina, Pablo de Sarasate, and Xavier Turull.
Mendelssohn’s violin concerto often begins too suddenly, with the feeling that the audience has stumbled in late – in media res; this is due to Mendelssohn’s unusual formal choice. He presents the soloist first, and only later allows the orchestral tutti to predominate. The BCO handled this challenge elegantly: their very gentle beginning bloomed into a gradually controlled crescendo. The orchestra’s well-blended timbre highlighted the difficult passagework outlined by the violin. Mr. Lipsitt allowed the flute section to cover the violin arpeggios at times, and he encouraged a lot of expressive rubato in the connection to the second thematic group.
More than any other part of the work, the simple recitativo accompaniment in the center of the first movement recalled Mendelssohn’s revival of Bach’s orchestral works. This simple halo of sound, reminiscent of Bach’s recitatives for Jesus in his Passions, showcased Ms. León’s strengths as a recitalist: her expressive adagio playing, her exploration of contrasts in articulation, and her ability to communicate emotion through both her visual and musical presentation.
In the Andante movement, Mr. Lipsitt conducted without a baton, preparing the audience for the gentleness of Mendelssohn’s triple-time melodies. Ms. León’s mastery of the exposed parallel octaves seemed to emerge naturally from the full string sound. In the final movement, Ms. León’s variety of expression and articulation (including playfully bouncing the bow for percussive effect) won over the audience. While not a loud player, she is full of youthful exhuberance and fully involved in the emotional aspects of her delivery. She rewarded a standing ovation with a well-chosen encore: Asturias from Isaac Albéniz’s Suite española, op. 47 arranged for solo violin. This work showcased haunting melodies and virtuosic arpeggios, which Ms. León played with precision, clarity, and control, again recalling Bach’s own writing for the solo violin.
After playing a supporting role in the first half of the concert, the woodwind choir emerged in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, with a vibrant, warm sound that focused the timbre and power of the ensemble. The French horns and rotary-valve trumpets blended masterfully through this work, evoking a Viennese serenade in the second movement and an Austrian Ländler in the third. You can hear Haydn’s influence on Beethoven most clearly in this movement, with humorous accents (recalling Haydn’s use of Austrian folk dance tunes in his middle symphonies), and contrasts of dynamics (piano vs. forte, rather than gradual crescendos). Oboist Barbara LaFitte soared above the ensemble with expressive cantabile playing, and the clarinets bloomed when paired with the French horns in the Larghetto.
Mr. Lipsitt chose very brisk tempi for the outer movements, sometimes resulting in a blurred sound from the ensemble, but his placement of the first and second violins on opposite sides of the performance space enhanced Beethoven’s playful counterpoint between the sections, and brought the Scherzo to life. Roksana Sudol’s leadership of the second violins was particularly crucial in moving the phrases forward and responding to Mr. Lipsitt’s dramatic, dance-like gestures in the final Allegro molto. Sometimes considered one of the last works of Beethoven’s “early” period, the second symphony presages some of the most remarkable passages in Beethoven’s sixth and ninth symphonies, and left the audience wanting more.
This evening’s smaller ensemble emphasized the lyrical virtuosity of the program, and will contrast greatly in tone with next year’s programs, which demand larger symphonic forces. Highlights from the upcoming season will include two of Beethoven’s later symphonies (No. 4 and No. 7), and will focus around the bicentennials of Mendelssohn (his Symphony No. 4, “Italian,” the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and of Schumann (his second symphony, Violin Concerto, and Cello Concerto, featuring Pablo Casals’ favorite cellist Leslie Parnas).
Schubert’s Overture from his youthful Singspiel Die Freunde von Salamanka (1815) was the surprise of the evening. Although still a young composer at the age of seventeen, this was Schubert’s seventh attempt at opera, and 1815 may have been Schubert’s most prolific year: he composed nine church works, a symphony, more than 100 songs, and music for three large-scale dramatic works (in German). The dialogue for this light comedy does not survive, but the Overture contains five of the most prominent melodies from the score.
Schubert’s influences could be clearly heard in the Mozartean use of a pedal point in the lower strings, articulating repeated sixteenth notes, and an approach to development that recalled Beethoven’s early works. Since the work felt like a truncated sonata form, with long, lyrical melodies later broken into short themes, Mr. Lipsitt built up tension by minimizing ornamentation of repeated passages and emphasizing the contrapuntal elements with widely varying cues and gestures.
Faneuil Hall’s acoustic brought out contrasts in Schubert’s orchestration and enhanced the sweetness of the woodwinds. This is an ideal setting for early Romantic repertoire: the intimacy and elegance of the space recalls late eighteenth-century European chamber music settings. While some of the orchestral tuttis were muddied by the thick texture of brass and timpani, the players kept the overall texture light and graceful.
This work, which opened the program, allowed Mr. Lipsitt to showcase the violin sections at their best. He demanded subtle dynamic contrast even within different phrases of the same melody, and encouraged flexibility of line, rather than harsh accent, to reinforce shifts in tonality. In his welcoming remarks following the Overture, Mr. Lipsitt described the work as The Barber of Seville meets The Creatures of Prometheus, combining simple, appealing melodies in different keys (a light operetta style) with the “gravitas and harmonic power of the Viennese master Schubert would become.”
Although most of the BCO’s programs stick to a formula (overture-concerto-symphony), Music Director Steven Lipsitt will take them further afield next year, with the world premiere of Andrew List’s Earth Song for Cello and Orchestra, a Valentine’s Day concert featuring the Borromeo String Quartet, and the incidental music from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.