in: Reviews

March 28, 2011

Radnofsky Tackled Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky

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On March 26, the Boston Classical Orchestra presented their concert, “Saxophone Baroque et Romantique,” at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall. The group was led by Steven Lipsitt, who is in his twelfth year serving in this capacity for the BCO and has served as a guest conductor for a number of orchestras in Europe as well as North and South America. The concert featured saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky, who has long served as the professor of saxophone at Boston’s three largest conservatories, namely New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, and Longy School; he has also been featured as a soloist with a number of symphonies around the world, including the New York Philharmonic.

The orchestra displayed a high level of technical expertise and ensemble, and in all but one of the selections, a great deal of expressiveness. The group’s expressiveness was clearly supported by Lipsitt’s skilled conducting, which served the program’s Romantic selections quite well, though this “Romantic” style of conducting and performance was equally applied to the program’s eighteenth-century selections as well, creating a performance style inappropriate for these selections. Radnofsky’s performance was not immaculate, and its mode of execution seemed out of sync with the ensemble. The organization’s efforts to appeal to a wider audience through a relaxed performance atmosphere as well as less “academic” introductions to the works is commendable, though I was disappointed with the writing and information in the program notes. (The Brandenburg Concertos were not “salon music,” as given in the spoken introduction to the piece, for example, but were written for highly formal concert performances at the court of the Duke of Coethen.)

Lipsitt did not direct J.S. Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, BWV 1047. Radnofsky used a soprano saxophone (substituting for the piccolo trumpet), though his performance included a number of missed notes and out-of-sync phrases. The group was joined by three additional soloists, flutist Kathleen O’Donnell, oboist Barbara LaFitte, and violinist Sandra Stecher Kott. The soloists stood in a semi-circle in front of the orchestra. The apparent lack of a unified conception of the larger shapes within the work created a performance that was generally unengaging, as one solo line led in a directionless succession to the next, punctuated with the orchestral ritornello statements; additionally, the balance between the soloists — each of whom were able to create elegant phrases as individual soloist — and the orchestra, though generally within acceptable limits, rarely showed a clear conception of which performer or performers should be prominent within the texture.

Mozart’s Divertimento in F Major, K. 138, showcased the orchestra’s impressive ensemble ability to shape and articulate a phrase in a performance that included only a small number of imperfections of notes and rhythms. As mentioned above, I felt that Lipsitt’s gesture (and as a result, the group’s performance) was fairly overwrought in comparison to the performance style of the eighteenth century, particularly in consideration of the sonic capabilities of the instruments of the period in which the work was composed; most significantly, this “Romantic” flavoring of the work betrayed the period’s sensibility for gentility and, to use the most common phrase from the period, the aim of artistic “discretion.”

Following intermission, Radnofsky joined the group to perform Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto in E Flat Major for Saxophone and String Orchestra; written in 1935 for German-born saxophonist Sigurd Rascher, this work is the earliest extant concerto written for the instrument, which had received its first patent just eighty-five years earlier. Despite the fact that this work was written during the period in which serialism and jazz-inspired classical works were coming to prominence, the Concerto was written in the style of the Romantics, featuring lush orchestration and long, flowing melodic lines. The orchestral accompaniment was beautifully and expressively executed by the orchestra, again with clear ensemble articulations and phrasings. As in the concert’s opening selection, Radnofsky’s performance was disappointing, including a number of wrong notes as well as occasional intonation issues. Additionally, the soloist’s phrasing often seemed uneven and even misaligned with the orchestral accompaniment in which they were given — in particular, a strong and even percussive tone in moments when the score called for gentleness.

Following the Glazounov, Radnofsky offered a brief encore, a set of virtuosic variations on the Gershwin brothers’ “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess; the variations were composed by Berklee faculty member Matt Marvuglio. The work is reminiscent of the Paris Conservatory repertoire of the first half of the twentieth century, with a particular affinity to Paul Bonneau’s popular showpiece for saxophone, the Caprice en forme de valse. Like Bonneau’s work, this selection features such a high level of variation that, if the listener were not familiar with the original tune beforehand, he or she would not likely recognize it after hearing the variations. Although I am not familiar with Marvuglio’s work, Randnofsky’s performance certainly garnered a strong, positive response from the audience.

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48, though a tribute to the composer’s admiration for Mozart’s elegant style, features the lush, Romantic style which became the trademark of the Russian symphonists of the early twentieth century. In this way, the work catered perfectly to the BCO’s strengths, as the group executed the work’s technical and artistic challenges in a moving fashion, despite a few pitch and tuning errors in the violin section. The work’s four movements also provided characteristic contrasts, as the stylized waltz of the second movement as well as the elegiac style of the third movement contrasted with the more robust outer movements, closing the concert on its highest artistic note.

Joel Schwindt is currently 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.

1 Comment

  1. I’m not sure where in Faneuil Hall Joel Schwindt was seated, but he seems to have experienced a completely different concert than that enjoyed by the performing musicians and the enthusiastic audience. The orchestra — many of whose members play period instruments with groups such as Boston Baroque, Aston Magna, & Handel-&-Haydn — played the Mozart Divertimento with minimal vibrato, an often light & elastic bowstroke, and the kind of phrasing, dynamics, & ensemble sensitivity that one hears from Frans Brueggen, Roger Norrington, Chris Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner, and other avatars of the period-practice “movement” (I myself studied this music with Jaap Schroeder, the founding concertmaster of the Academy of Ancient Music).

    But a bigger disappointment to me is Mr. Schwindt’s account of saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky’s playing. There are perhaps six people on the planet who can do what Ken did this past weekend: play the treacherously difficult Bach Brandenburg No. 2 with technical command, tonal beauty, stylishness, and understated artistry; and 12 minutes later switch horns and play the Glazunov concerto with a passion, freedom, mastery, & spontaneity that composers dream of. It was a tour de force, and the roar of approval from audience & orchestra alike was immediate and heartfelt.

    BMInt does an invaluable service by reviewing concerts that might not otherwise be covered (by the print media, for example) — but live concerts are not recordings, and inexperienced critics whose observations are so completely at odds with the experience of other listeners in the hall can sometimes muddy clear waters.

    Yours sincerely,
    Steven Lipsitt
    (Music Director, Boston Classical Orchestra)

    Comment by Steven Lipsitt — March 29, 2011 at 7:18 pm

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