in: Reviews

January 30, 2010

Early Lines Form in Cold for Free Beethoven by Boston Landmarks

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On what has likely been the coldest night of this winter, hundreds of people gathered to hear the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s “Heroic Beethoven” concert at 8 pm in Harvard’s Sanders Theater on January 29, 2010. Well before the doors opened at 7:30, a long line stretched out the door and into the frigid night, full of people eager for the opportunity to hear two Beethoven masterworks for free. That the house was packed is a credit not only to the BLO, but also to the support for good music in Cambridge and the greater Boston area.

The BLO, which is celebrating its 10th year of bringing free, professional performances of classical music to the people of Boston, showcased André-Michel Schub as the soloist for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op. 37 on the first half of the concert. Mr. Schub, who serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music, brought a sonata-like delicacy to the opening “ Allegro,” in particular. Orchestra and soloist demonstrated great sensitivity to the transitions between tutti and solo passages, and Mr. Schub’s entrances respected the orchestral writing. The orchestra’s understated playing in the first movement were much appreciated, as some ensembles take a no-holds-barred approach to these works of Beethoven’s middle period, eschewing both nuance and élan . At times the violins seemed a bit labored in their thematic material, particularly in the first movement, and this was made more noticeable in contrast to the ease with which Mr. Schub delivered his exposition. Maestro Ansbacher’s tempo for the Largo allowed pianist and orchestra to play gracefully, without getting bogged down in a lugubrious slowness, so often erroneously applied to Largo movements.

The orchestra was more assured in the second half of the program, featuring Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 “Eroica.” The advantage (for the orchestra) of a symphony over a concerto is the absence of the x-factor of the soloist. Maestro Ansbacher, before the beginning of the second half, spoke of the famous second movement “Marcia funebre,” how Beethoven seems to watch the funeral procession in deep contemplation of all facets of heroism. The orchestra was incredibly sensitive to the textural subtleties of this movement. The only drawback was the lack of cohesion in the initial “drum rolls” from the basses, but this was remedied in the reprise. In general, the strings had excellent articulation (save for one errant violin at the final cadence of the first movement), and the sound from the cellos and the basses was sonorous  but never overpowering. Maestro Ansbacher also remarked on the variations of the Finale, musing that Beethoven conveyed the reflections of the hero on “what he could have done.” The writing in the opening of the fourth movement almost makes the piece work more like an orchestral string quartet, and the orchestra communicated the intimacy of this reflection with very clean fugal passages. The strength of the winds, particularly the flutes, first oboe, and bassoon, were revealed in the second and final movements. The confidence of the trumpets and horns seemed to fluctuate a bit, but made a truly fine showing in the final movement. Ansbacher seemed to subscribe to George Szell’s “save something for the end” approach, effectively delivering the heroic finale in contrast to the more inniglich sentiments of the second movement.

I found Beethoven’s “Turkish March” to be an unfortunate choice of encore, because I wanted the “Eroica” to stay with me without interference from the relative triteness of the famous march. I appear to have been in the minority, however, as the ensemble received their second standing ovation for the evening.

The BLO proved that “you get what you pay for” is not always true. Here the only cost was facing the biting cold and fighting for a good seat in Sanders Theatre, and that investment garnered a most excellent return. “Free” does not mean “cheap” and Ansbacher and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra made no sacrifices in the quality of their art and were admirably uncompromising in their mission

Rebecca Marchand, musicologist and mezzo-soprano, holds a Ph.D in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She serves on the faculty of the Longy School of Music, and teaches also at Boston Conservatory and Providence College.

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