The Longwood Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Susan Davenny Wyner, opened its 30th season at Jordan Hall on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011 with a concert that would make any orchestra proud. What is unusual about the LSO is the make-up of its membership – over 80 percent of the musicians are affiliated with the medical profession. Even outstanding concertmaster Sherman Jia is an M.D. candidate at Harvard Medical School. If these doctors are as good at their “day job” as they are at playing their hearts out, these are the physicians you want treating you.
This season also marks the 20th anniversary of a unique program that puts the LSO in a category all its own: “The Healing Art of Music.” Every concert the LSO performs is used to raise awareness and funds for a designated nonprofit that aids the medically underserved, including last night’s designee, the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. Music has the power to communicate and to heal, but this orchestra has taken this idea a step further and is making a unique contribution to social justice. This year they have reached a milestone of raising $1,000,000 for the causes they have supported.
These good works do not paper over a less than stellar musical product, however. The intelligently chosen program was rendered with skill, sensitivity, musicality, and energy, resulting in a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the program.
John Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra was written as an overture before Harbison was able to get the rights to the story to complete a full opera; yet this work stands on its own as an evocation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Ominous music underscores the dark underpinnings of the story, interspersed with charming “period”-sounding dance band music. It is easy to imagine the grand party happening across the lawn. Pairing this work with the Verdi Overture to La Forza del Destino, which opened the second half, was a very shrewd choice. Similar in mood, (the intercutting of menacing urgency with the cheerful surface, foreshadowing the outcome of the drama), these two works complement each other very well.
The concerto soloist, Ran Dank, played the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, op. 73, the “Emperor,” as though he owned it. He ran through the endless scales, arpeggios, and trills effortlessly and thoroughly conveyed the power and majesty of the work. Ms. Wyner and the orchestra were solid accompanists. The second movement, the Adagio un poco moto, opens with some of the sweetest music Beethoven ever wrote, and Wyner shaped the phrase beautifully.
The final piece on the program, Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird (1919), allowed Wyner and the orchestra to really shine. It finally achieved a real pianissimo in the opening, and there were outstanding solos throughout, particularly the pagan, woody bassoon solo in the Berceuse. Wyner, who is one of the candidates for the open position of music director of the orchestra, has an interesting back story herself. After a hit-and-run accident ended her international singing career, she turned to conducting as an outlet for her considerable musicianship. Her conducting is clear, graceful, sure, and passionate. As a person who has personally experienced the healing power of music, she makes a formidable candidate for the job.
Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.