in: Reviews

March 15, 2010

Debussy, Ginastera, and Jackiw Substituting in Barber Violin Concerto for Longwood Symphony

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The Longwood Symphony Orchestra produced an impressive display of fine musicianship at their Jordan Hall concert on Saturday, March 13. All the works under the baton of Music Director Jonathan McPhee were from the first half of the 20th century: Alberto Ginastera’s Ollantay, op. 17 (1947), Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, op. 14 (1939) and Claude Debussy’s La Mer (1905).

The Longwood Symphony, lest any of our readers be unfamiliar with it, is one of Boston’s exceptionally skilled volunteer orchestras — amateurs in all the best senses — comprising mainly members of the Longwood medical community. Apart from playing classical music for the fun of it, the orchestra understandably highlights its secular therapeutic value, and dedicates each concert to a partnership with community associations furthering the healing of civic ailments. On this occasion it was the Food Project, which supports urban agriculture and food assistance.

It is a singular curiosity that the two best-remembered early works of Ginastera (1916-83), from his “objective nationalist” period, are programmatic works on subjects having nothing to do with Argentina: the ballet Estancia, op. 8, and Ollantay, a three-movement tone poem. The latter is taken from the foundational mythology of the Mayans of present-day Guatemala, as recorded in the 16th century by Spanish Dominican missionaries. It tells of the conflict between Inca, son of the sun, and Ollantay, son of the earth. The latter contests the former’s hegemony, is defeated and executed, but not before he prophesies the downfall of the Inca civilization (one suspects the mythology may have been doctored after the fact to account for the Conquistadores). The relatively short three-movement work comprises a very brief prologue called “The Countryside of Ollantaytambo” (a tambo, “tampu” in the Quechua language descended from the Incans, is a settlement, way-station, administrative center or, in this case, probably a fortress) that sets the fiercely defiant atmosphere surrounding the protagonist. Musically, there is a motif — Ollantay’s leitmotif—that is somewhat reminiscent of the B-A-C-H trope, but with an upper note a semitone higher. This figure, unsurprisingly, broods over the work as a whole. The second movement, a warrior’s dance, is as you would expect, a frenetic outburst: jagged ostinati in the violins counterpoint short phrases elsewhere, with heavily layered winds and brass. Much in this music suggests the Rite of Spring, but Ginastera takes it a different route — more florid and atmospheric and less single-mindedly brutal. The final movement returns us to the Ollantay theme as the warrior faces death and issues his solemn prophecy, to an inversion of his motif in the harp. There is highly effective yet subdued scoring for winds and tympani just before the final blow. McPhee and ensemble conveyed all of this to excellent effect.

Samuel Barber (1910-81) wrote three concertos for solo instrument and orchestra, and each is a masterpiece. His Violin Concerto, the most popular of the three, was written on commission for violinist Iso Briselli, but, owing to disputes that later retelling render wryly comic, was premiered two years later by Albert Spalding. The reasons for its popularity — by some reckonings the most often performed American violin concerto, and next to Gershwin’s piano concerto probably the second most-performed American concerto of any kind — are not difficult to ascertain: it is unabashedly lyrical and romantic, with drop-dead gorgeous tunes in each of the first two movements and a hard-charging showpiece of a finale, delivered in a finely wrought package of technical finesse and elegance (these big tunes, for example, are saved from bathos by clever irregularities of rhythm and phrasing). Longwood Symphony had programmed this work well in advance, and engaged the hot young Chicago-based violinist Tai Murray to play it, but just a few days before the concert she called in sick with pneumonia. As luck (putting it mildly) would have it, the hot young Boston-based violinist Stefan Jackiw had just returned from Seattle, where he had played this very piece — so into the breach he plunged. In the event, his was an intriguing performance, wet as can be, with enough body English, we suspect, to satisfy even Alex Ross. At the same time, his tone is, while exceptionally sweet, rather on the thin side, on the order of, say, Zino Francescatti. Not a bad thing in itself, as the basic scoring of the concerto is rather light; but McPhee chose not to scale down the orchestra, sometimes creating an overpowering clash of forces. All things considered, the orchestral accompaniment strove for delicacy, and against the odds achieved it more often than not. In contrast to the ripe effusiveness of the first two movements, we found the bravura finale strangely underplayed. Mr. Jackiw also provided an encore, the Largo movement from Bach’s C major unaccompanied violin sonata, which he dedicated to the memory of one of his NEC teachers, Mary Lou Speaker Churchill.

We will not attempt to compete with some of our colleagues here who are true Debussy experts; and in any event quite a lot has been very insightfully written about La Mer, the composer’s grandest orchestral work. Call it a symphony if you wish (formally it bears little relation to one), or three symphonic sketches, as the composer did, this masterwork is, like most Debussy, both prophetic and hermetic — little (and some big) half-tunes and melodic modules continually developed over his patented seemingly rootless harmonies (although there really are some quite interesting long-range key movements in it), painting moods rather than pictures (one writer we’ve read remarked that Debussy wrote tone poems that depicted nothing). The opening movement, “The Sea From Dawn to Noon,” brings us from B-minor shadows to D-flat major light, but one must bear in mind that whatever the time or weather, the ocean is a vast formless mass of mostly gray, tinged with dull green or blue and only the occasional glint of white foam and golden light. Debussy, one of the greatest masters of orchestration, therefore employs his subtlest sonic palette, with masterful restraint. The middle movement, the scherzo-like “Play of the Waves,” gives us a giddy, push-me-pull-you of line, color and volume, while the final “Dialogue of Wind and Sea” (its original title, as Steven Ledbetter’s notes observe, was to have been “The Wind Makes the Sea Dance”) is an apotheosis of what came before, with the recognizable return of material from the first movement. Keeping the large instrumental forces balanced, moving, and nuanced is not easy in this familiar piece, with many listeners’ expectations set by great live and recorded performances. McPhee and orchestra rose to the occasion and acquitted themselves with distinction (special shout-out to the trumpets, identified in the program as Drs. Wolfram Goessling and Leonard Zon and Coralynn Sack), although the first movement was somewhat wanting in delicacy and the third suffered from sporadic intonation issues. Overall, though, it must be said that not very many professional orchestras in many parts of the country could have matched the quality of this dedicated — and obviously well-trained, well-rehearsed and well-led — band.

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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