The Dorchester Symphony Orchestra under conductor William Shoucair is one of the area’s newest community orchestras, dating only from 2008. It consists, according to Mr. Shoucair, of about one third conservatory students, and the rest amateurs from Dorchester and the Boston area. Apart from public performances, such as the one Sunday afternoon, April 11, at All Saints Church in Ashmont, the orchestra seeks a wider community mission, with educational and less formal neighborhood presentations. It can be a bit of a constraint on programming to be thus community focused, particularly in areas like Dorchester with such widely diverse populations and degrees of cultural exposure. Nevertheless, Mr. Shoucair has not chosen the easy path of “pops” or crossover programming, but instead went with substantial works from the standard symphonic repertoire: Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (with soloist Yoojin Park), and the Mozart Symphony No. 39.
The audience, in one of Boston’s great architectural gems (the architect was Ralph Adams Cram) still redolent of the morning’s incense, was only middling in number—which calls out for more attention from the community to familiarize itself with the institutions dedicated to serve it, especially ones of this quality and scarcity. At the same time, the demands of running on what must be a shoestring impose other compromises, some of which might even modestly impede mission: thus, the absence of program notes, while not much of a hardship for seasoned audiences in this repertoire, might be discouraging to just those people unfamiliar with the repertoire that the group seeks to encourage.
The Fidelio Overture is the one that audiences for those rare performances of Beethoven’s only opera usually get to hear. After agonizing for years over the composition of the opera, it took Beethoven further years to work out just what sort of curtain-raiser it should have; as a result, we have not only this actual overture but the three discarded efforts now called the “Leonora” overtures (after the opera’s originally intended title), which are grander symphonic ventures almost like tone poems. The Fidelio overture is much more concise; Shoucair and the DSO gave a performance that, while not to be confused with one of our top professional ensembles, showed commendable dynamic contrast, and held our attention with fine dramatic pacing and a rousing finish. We were sitting relatively close up, but the acoustics of All Saints’ sanctuary are quite favorable, and this compact group (28 players) delivered a very satisfactory volume and sonic clarity.
The featured event of the program was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, op. 64 (actually the composer’s second violin concerto), which remains the paragon and avatar of all violin concertos. It has never been surpassed in the perfection of its construction and its balance between virtuosity and musical substance. Its popularity, unabated after 166 years, has stimulated the finest performers to give their best, and this “race to the top” has knock-on benefits to orchestral players and, of course, audiences. We can’t remember the last time we’ve heard a really bad performance of it, and as a consequence our tolerance for the merely competent has thinned. Luckily, our tolerance levels were not tested on this occasion. Ms. Park, a Korean-born graduate student at NEC under the tutelage of James Buswell, has a solid, focused, forceful sound and a commanding approach. Her vibrato is commendably narrow, her cadenza in the first movement (a Mendelssohn innovation in this concerto, one of several, was to put the cadenza at the end of the development section so as to integrate it dramatically and substantively with the work, and not leave it as a flashy tack-on at the end) was a marvel of dynamic control. The orchestra was no shrinking violet, either: Mr. Shoucair made it a fully active participant and foil to the soloist, rather than just her accompanist. The slow movement saw Ms. Park ratchet up the sweetness, doing full justice to Mendelssohn’s gorgeous tunes. Our only reservations came in the finale, in which the parties resumed the muscularity of the first movement to the occasional prejudice of the finale’s singular elfin qualities. On the whole, though, this was a performance of which the DSO could be justly proud.
The program concluded with one of Mozart’s final three great symphonies, No. 39 in E flat, K. 543 (pre-concert publicity had indicated No. 35, the Haffner). Our view and hypothesis is that the strain of perfecting the Mendelssohn left inadequate time to bring the Mozart to the same level of polish. The first two movements, in particular, seemed under-rehearsed and a little ragged (Mozart and Haydn are punishingly hard to bring off well, with the parts so exposed). The Minuet and finale were much better, with some lovely playing by the flute and clarinets in the former’s (literal) trio. This was our first hearing of the DSO (we live basically around the corner from the venue), and on current evidence we will be following its career with great interest.