On Mother’s Day, May 9, “Welcome Summer” concertized its way into Sanders Theatre at Harvard University via the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston. Soprano Nina Moe ushered in George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess with loveliness of voice, a very finely tuned glissando sliding from a beautiful high A on downward into clear low register without a break in timbre and ending up the famous lullaby. Guest Conductor Joel Smirnoff turned the orchestra into a finely tuned and luxurious accompaniment. All that was lacking was warmth, a motherly sound, an American atmosphere, perhaps.
Nothing much if anything apparent having to with summer was the closer to “Welcome Summer”—Joseph Haydn’s symphony and concerto mash-up, Sinfonia concertanteHob.I:105. Soloists Kristina Nilsson, violin, Nancy Dimock, oboe, Ronald Haroutounian, bassoon and Steve Laven, cello, brought off this high entertainment music in every way. It was a gusty performance like the wind outside in Cambridge over this spring weekend. Smirnoff and Pro Arte played up a storm behind them, just the right balance. Thanks to Haydn and to everybody onstage, time flew by and so did where we were. It was a most welcome and scintillating escape into another time and place.
Going back to American atmosphere, what might that be: informality, directness, a touch of liberty, openness, maybe? The rendering of Gershwin’s “Summertime” caught the ear with purity and clarity; it could not have been innocence, however, as I kept getting the feeling that before me was a soloist and a team of musicians fully engaged in their art, with a take loftier than I would have preferred for the American pieces.
I looked forward to experiencing an atmosphere of a different kind in Samuel Barber’s setting of the words of the American writer James Agee, a piece for voice and orchestra called Knoxville: Summer of 1915: “It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches rocking gently and talking gently…” Later, the father has put away his hose; the grass is still wet where quilts have been placed for the family to gather.
Humid air haunting the higher string passages, gentle rocking rhythms in harp and flute, a relaxed and unassuming flow in the orchestra, and the child posing in soprano voice, my take on this picturesque music was that it was not quite realized by the performers. Beauty of sound from Pro Arte and soloist Moe were the perpetrators of a straight-ahead performance that once in a while verged on the moody, the climatic. One reason for this was overly loud playing; softness came a bit over the decibel level so that, when the fortissimo toward the end came, there was little difference from before. Opposite that, the pianissimo at the tail of “Now is the night one blue dew” coming on a high B-flat and A in long durations which could have been so moving, came rather on the loud side in Nina Moe’s interpretation.
Professionalism is not enough in this town full of music. There was evidence here and in another seasonal expression, this one by the Hungarian, Zoltán Kodály called Summer Evening, in which the Pro Arte musicians showed they can handle a lot not only in the way of technique, style and ensemble but at times, more. The English horn solos were filled with beautiful tone. There were nuances, too. How long does one wait to hear this instrument live, never mind so utterly communicative?
All in all, unsettling might be the best way to describe today’s experience. The programming of a summerfest was premature. Elevated professionalism could have reached out more toward communication.