The ominous chords of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, under the baton of Tiffany Chang, a candidate for the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in orchestral conducting, opened the concert by the Boston University Chamber Orchestra on September 27. It was an engaging program consisting of three pieces of different periods and varying familiarity. The slow d-minor introduction was dark and menacing, making a stark contrast with the fast D-major main section, the former depicting Don Giovanni’s imminent judgment day, the latter his carefree attitude towards the crimes he commits. Despite clear conducting from Chang, the upper strings’ ensemble was fuzzy from time to time in the faster section. Also, at a couple climaxes the brass and percussion overwhelmed the rest of the orchestra. Nonetheless, the power of Mozart’s most intensely dramatic opera was conveyed.
The Wound-Dresser, a setting for baritone and orchestra by John Adams (b. 1947) of an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s poem of that name was an apt choice for this sesquicentennial year of the beginning of the American Civil War. As so often with Whitman, the poem is in the first person; in the words of the composer, it is “the most intimate, most graphic and most profoundly affecting evocation of the act of nursing the sick and the dying that I know of.” The baritone was James Demler, and the conductor was William Lumpkin, both BU faculty members. Demler gave a dramatic account of Whitman’s stalwart caring for the maimed and dying, and Lumpkin obtained equally descriptive playing from the orchestra, notably the opening highly atmospheric playing in the strings’ high register. Only at one climax did the ensemble, perhaps caught up in the powerful text, cover up the voice, at the words “I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.” Demler’s excellent diction was a blessing, particularly as this poem contains unusual subject matter, e.g., bullet wounds, a bloody stump, and putrid gangrene. This last had an orchestral accompaniment vividly illustrating the viewer’s nausea. There were also some fine solos from concertmaster Tudor Dornescu, hornist Adam Krings, and flutist Stephanie Burke. Perhaps most moving of all were the final two lines — partly for the simplicity of Adams’ setting and partly for the directness of Demler’s delivery — “Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have crossed and rested, Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.” The audience was held spellbound at the conclusion.
After intermission the concert concluded with Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in c minor, the “Tragic.” As with Antonin Dvorak, Schubert’s earlier symphonies are much less frequently heard than the final ones. His first symphony in the minor mode, written in 1816 when the composer was nineteen, the Fourth marks a new level of his maturity. Not unlike the Mozart overture heard earlier, the symphony’s first movement has a slow introduction fraught with chromatic harmonies and sighing figures, which proceeds into a fast main section lighter in mood. The performance was characterized by propulsive playing, crisp ensemble, and good balances. I was gratified that Lumpkin and his band observed the exposition repeat.
The slow movement, in the unconventional submediant key of A-flat major, had a lovely, folklike melody played affectingly, though intonation was an occasional problem in both strings and woodwinds. There was handsome solo work from oboist Rui Liu. The third movement minuet had the character of a scherzo (Italian, “joke”) as Schubert enjoyed using deliberately deceptive rhythms. Lumpkin and the orchestra gave a witty rendition, including a contrasting trio with the feel of a brisk but stylish waltz.
The finale featured a precursor to the relentless moto perpetuo string figures of the Ninth Symphony finale. One is tempted to wonder if Schubert had a grudge against violinists! The strings, indeed the whole orchestra, were enjoyably light-footed, thought it couldn’t have been easy. Only once — in a brief slower passage — did the ensemble become blurry, but it was quickly back on track. The movement built to a resounding and triumphant ending in C major, capping off a program of interesting and diverse repertoire and generally fine performances.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach, and choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.