in: Reviews

October 8, 2010

Rhapsody in Gray: New Boston Conservatory Theater Debuts With String Ensemble

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The Boston Conservatory’s as-yet-unnamed theater at 31 Hemenway Street, a complete rehab of a 1948 facility crammed into a solidly-packed Fenway area residential block, has gotten off to a soft launch. It has been available for student-faculty use for a month or so, and on October 7 it received its unheralded first performance (the official opening takes place next week) hosting the Conservatory’s String Ensemble under the leadership of Andrew Mark.

The building is vertical in orientation with handsome plate windows in the elevator lobbies at all levels. The theater entrance is at the second level, off a rather cramped waiting area shared with a dance studio. The theater space itself is oblong, though not in the classic “shoebox” proportions —it’s just a bit squatter — and is clad in a chic charcoal-to-black composite material with slender ovoid cut-outs and light gray plaster-covered verticals. There is an apparently ample orchestra pit, not used for this performance, and the seating is well raked in the main area, with steeper pitch in the rear five-or-six-row “balcony.” Seats are covered in industrial-strength gray striped cloth. We’re telling you all this so that those with acoustical backgrounds, or who followed our extensive coverage of the new Shalin Liu Center in Rockport this summer, can get a sense of how this will play out, literally as well as figuratively, in the sound quality of this new space. The BosCon’s acoustician on this project was Larry Kirkegaard, who also did Shalin Liu. Upon sitting down in about the center of the orchestra section, we were aware of the silent efficiency of the air flow. A related BMInt article with renderings is here.

The String Ensemble, which apart from cellos and basses stands to perform, offered a highly and commendably diverse program consisting of a Corelli concerto grosso, the Elgar Serenade for Strings, the Romantic Ode of Vivian Fine, and one of the juvenile but preternaturally assured string symphonies by Mendelssohn. This was a full program, but Mr. Mark chose not to take an intermission. As there were no program notes, except for a brief oral introduction to the Fine, what follows is entirely from our own research.

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was one of the leading violinists of his day and, as a composer, a pivotal figure in the transition to the “modern” Baroque style exemplified by Vivaldi and Handel, and away from the dense polyphony that received its belated apotheosis with J. S. Bach. His twelve concerti grossi, all published the year after his death as op. 6, were among the first of this genre. All of Corelli’s concerti grossi used a concertino with two violins and cello, a ripieno of strings, and a harpsichord continuo (played on an electronic keyboard Thursday — we hope BosCon will use a real one for future concerts in the theater). The op. 6 no. 4 performed on this occasion is not as popular as the Christmas Concerto from this set, but seems pretty typical: there is a slow introduction followed by a vigorous allegro; a slow movement that seems almost like a slow introduction, but this time to a more rapid passage within the same movement; and a dance-like 6/8 finale.

The concertino, comprising Shuo Wang and Wen-Tso Chen, violins, and Elena Karakousoglou, cello, gives rapid, chirpy virtuosic music to the violins and a more stable, supportive part to the cello — like a private continuo. The players displayed technical assurance, elegance and fine tone. The same may be said for the ripieno, whose ensemble work was crisp and disciplined under Mr. Mark’s clear direction. What consistently struck us, however, was the weakness of the projection. At first we were inclined to fault the conductor, but the problem was so persistent, through so many different musical styles, that we concluded that the hall itself is the culprit. More on this later.

The Elgar Serenade for Strings was published as his op. 20 in 1892, but is a revision of an earlier set of pieces. In either case, it is one of his earliest works to be performed regularly now. It consists of three short movements, the outer ones in relaxed moderately fast tempi, the central one marked larghetto. This one is the most eloquent, and it received the most expressive performance from the ensemble. Had Mr. Mark been aware of the degree to which the theater swallows sound, he might have forced his troops to greater exertion; as it was, the cellos and basses were severely disadvantaged and therefore affected the overall sound balance.

Vivian Fine (1913-2000) was one of those American composers of seemingly unbounded promise, who produced a substantial, respected, yet ultimately sub-stellar œuvre. She started with a bang as a prodigy in her native Chicago, both as a pianist and as a composer under the tutelage of Ruth Crawford Seeger and Henry Cowell, with a specialty in noisy modernism. She migrated to New York, where she was hailed by Copland, and eventually settled into a long academic career at Bennington College, where her style mellowed out some. The Romantic Ode for string trio and string orchestra was written in 1976 on commission for the Chamber Music Conference and Composers Forum of the East, at Bennington, where it was premiered. It was then published by Gunther Schuller’s GunMar Publishing. Heidi Von Gunden’s biography of Fine, quoting the composer, notes that the Ode represents a return to lyricism and the “luscious, full string sound.” As Mr. Mark also observed, the work is fairly lucidly structured, with key thematic elements —a sinuous melodic line first articulated in the solo violin and viola, and a strongly marcato tutti punctuation — stated, developed and recapitulated. According to Mr. Mark, the performance Thursday was its Boston premiere.

This clarity of construction is no doubt of value for didactic and navigational purposes. The content, we are forced to admit, left us unpersuaded. Another way of putting “sinuous” might be “meandering,” and we found the theme, and consequently our attention, doing rather a bit of that. By this time we’d figured out that we’d have to fight the room’s acoustic to get much juice out of anything, but in this case the piece itself— slow, mournful, drab gray (where the romance comes in we’re challenged to say) — was giving us nothing to work with. The “concertino” of Mr. Wang, violin, Brian Sherwood, viola and Marie-Thérèse Dugré, cello, were outstanding in tone and passion, energy alas expended in a losing cause. Sensing that the audience wasn’t fully on board, Mr. Mark gave it another go; we appreciate his commitment, just as we appreciate the soloists’ chops, but the rehearing didn’t ameliorate our mood.

The program closed with the second of Felix Mendelssohn’s dozen string symphonies, in D (now given the MWV number N2), written, as they all were, as composition exercises in 1821-3 (do the math: eleven years old!) This particular one, in three movements, is one of the more Bach-like exercises, with strong contrapuntal activity, even in the slow movement, while also integrating Mozartian sureness of formal design. In other words, apart from the mind-blowing precocity of his technical grasp, there are not a lot of identifiable Mendelssohnianisms in this piece, but every now and then you see the original mind at work, as when a phrase that looks like it’s going to have a stock ending veers off into something quite different. It would be really scary to have a child like that in the house — and the Mendelssohns had two!

With the generally peppy music and generous textures being cooperative, Mr. Mark was finally able to deliver a bit of robust sound, although —intermissions being good for performers as well as audiences — ensemble and intonation were occasionally a bit ragged (which served as a clear reminder of how good they had been up until then).

We think that Boston Conservatory needs to contemplate an acoustic punch-list for its theater. While deviations from the acoustic “golden ratio” of the shoebox configuration need not be fatal, there’s not enough reverb hitting the middle seats, which ought to be the best. While certain aspects of its design suggest it should be a very live and bright hall, so much so that there are actually sound baffles on the rear wall, the opposite is the case. It may be that the room was built with the pit orchestra in mind, and for all we know the sound was deliberately suppressed so that orchestras would not drown out singers on stage, but on-stage musicians deserve to be heard, and well, and we can’t imagine how unamplified voices are going to carry much better. Mr. Kirkegaard may need to put in a few long dark nights of the soul before this job is done.

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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