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Boston Classical’s Programming Picture-Perfect


Picture-perfect programming for a Faneuil Hall musical get-together from Boston Classical Orchestra made it an irresistible choice for a Saturday evening (November 20) in Boston, the weekend just before Thanksgiving. Two “Classical” symphonies, one Russian and the other German, surrounded an American concerto. Together, violinist Sharon Roffman and Steven Lipsitt handed out welcoming tones in this historic setting.

If I remember correctly my terms from music history classes, it would be a capital “C” for the word “Classical” when it refers specifically to the era of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. It might be said that Prokofiev’s title for his Symphony No. 1, “Classical” came into being as an expression of gratefulness to his forefathers in musical composition. Beethoven, the German composer, has been written about as “the man who freed music.” If I am reading too much into the programming that Lipsitt and his Boston Classical Orchestra conceived, I would quickly add that it was as much a skillful, pleasing tying together of pieces.

Had there been more bodies in the audience to absorb some of the sound that often boomed about the hall, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony would have found clarity, a feature of that early era that would have better exhibited BCO’s sparkling and upbeat performance. The tempos which Lipsitt chose could not have been more fitting. The opening Allegro had all the spunk and playful reserve suggested in the score: at the outset, con brio, or with vivacity, spirited, and later, con eleganza, the violins directed to play at the point of the bow creating lightness.

The quiet second movement with a slower speed, Larghetto, and the openly textured Gavotta following it made it nicely through Faneuil Hall’s acoustics. The very lively “Finale” catapulted around the room. The louder and faster sounds, though, were affected by the room. By taking on unpleasant, sometimes harsh edges, the orchestra’s sound, overall polished and packed with oomph, became compromised.

As Lipsitt pointed out, Romantic-era emotion and expression are found in Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The Pennsylvanian composed it 1942. Its sound and spirit are American throughout. Julliard-trained Sharon Roffman personalized the concerto’s already Romantic bent, projecting intimacy by way of rubato — “stolen time.” By altering the pulse in this way in the opening movement, she turned the outreaching Barber inward. Organic declamation of Barber didn’t seem to mix well with Roffman’s freer sense of rhythm which she pronounced with a fluid volume. I did not always understand her individualized notions as often they seemed private, the openness and breadth of this movement singing of American values remained fogbound.

But to her credit Roffman faced an on-and-off again struggle to be heard above the orchestra, which completely covered her playing at climaxes and other key arrival points. Much of her accomplished virtuosity that should have been on display in the Presto in moto perpetuo was shielded by overly resonant hall and overly strong orchestral accompaniment.

Back to picture-perfect programming. In an effort to reach out to the audience for its assistance in financially supporting the Boston Classical Orchestra, whose ticket sales represent some 40% of the organization’s total income, Lipsitt appealed further by taking up his clarinet. At intermission, he, Roffman, and the orchestra treated us to an old standard, “Pennies from Heaven.” Thoughtful, delightful, his appeal is one of the best I have heard — and enjoyed!

Despite those drawbacks of Faneuil Hall already mentioned, the Boston Classical Orchestra and conductor Steven Lipsitt made a joyful noise with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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