in: Reviews

December 5, 2010

LSO: Admirable Mastery from Amateurs

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On December 4th, the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, led by Jonathan McPhee held their latest concert at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. The group presented Borodin’s Second Symphony as well as two scenes from the final opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The orchestra is made up mostly of amateur musicians from the Boston area, the majority of whom are regularly employed in the medical or scientific fields. The LSO was joined for its final selection by soprano Joanna Porackova, a long-time veteran of the European operatic and concert stage who has made a number of appearances in the Boston area.

McPhee, a graduate of the Julliard School and the Royal Academy of Music in London, is now in his sixth season with the LSO; he also directs the Boston Ballet Orchestra in addition to two local community orchestras. McPhee’s direction was poised, skillful, and expressive, showing complete command of both the musical program and the volunteer ensemble. The conductor’s expressiveness not only facilitated the group’s outstanding performance, but also directed the audience to the musical action he wished to bring out. To paraphrase a common adage from the world of musical direction, “good conductors lead the ensemble; great ones lead the audience as well.”

It was no coincidence that the group’s first selection was a symphony by Dr. Alexander Borodin, a chemist who was also an amateur musician. The Second Symphony presents a number of challenges to an amateur orchestra, including a unison opening theme. The group was impressively unified, creating an effective presentation of the powerful theme. The first movement’s contrasting, lyric theme was also effective, though it did present perhaps the group’s only shortcoming; the ninety-member orchestra was often unable to produce contrasting dynamics to its stronger timbres (an understandable shortcoming, given the sheer size of the group). The fast-moving texture of the second movement was nimbly executed by the orchestra, with the winds gracefully presenting the movement’s contrasting theme. The third movement featured a number of soloists, all of whom served ably in this role; this movement moves directly into the final movement, an Allegro “Finale.” Again, the technical and artistic mastery of the group was stunning and nearly flawless, achieving a level of musical artistry far beyond their amateur status.

The second half of the program began with the tone poem known as “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” which connects the prologue to the opening act. This instrumental selection, taken from Götterdämmerung, is filled with the leitmotivs associated with various characters, places, and things throughout the Ring; additionally, the tone poem depicts the flow of the Rhine, as Siegfried travels down the mighty river. Following this selection, soprano Joanna Porackova joined the group for the “Immolation Scene” from the same opera.  I particularly appreciated McPhee’s attempt to perform the two without a break for applause, although a few enthusiastic audience members disrupted his plan at Porackova’s entrance.

The orchestra continued its stellar performance, giving a powerful representation of the Rhine and clear, characteristic statements of the leitmotivs. Horn soloist Vanessa Gardner, LSO board member and concerts manager at MIT, performed the famous offstage horn solos from the “Rhine Journey” with the proficiency and musical presence of a professional. Porackova’s performance had a clear sense of the drama, as well as strong comportment and gesture. Her warm, smooth voice rang out over Wagner’s heavy orchestral textures. She is clearly at home in the role of Brünnhilde (although Götterdämmerung is not listed among her stage credits, she has performed significant roles in several of Wagner’s operas, including Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre). Her powerful, dramatic performance was well supported by the LSO, giving a triumphant finish to the evening.

Ed. Note: French horn player name changed per comments below.

Joel Schwindt is pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.

3 Comments

  1. A wonderful performance by the entire ensemble indeed!

    Just a slight correction – the offstage horn solo was played by Vanessa Gardner, not Elizabeth Axtell as you list above.

    Comment by Melissa Fulkerson — December 6, 2010 at 10:16 am

  2. Yes, the horn soloist was Vanessa Gardner, LSO board member and concerts manager at MIT.

    Comment by Clarise Snyder — December 6, 2010 at 10:31 am

  3. The two “local community orchestras” referred to in the review are in fact both fully professional orchestras. These two groups, the Lexington Symphony and Nashua Symphony, recently jointly performed Mahler’s 8th Symphony (the “Symphony of a Thousand”) which was reviewed elsewhere on this site.

    Comment by Barbara Hughey — December 7, 2010 at 10:52 am

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