Anyone despairing over the current state of classical music would have taken hope from the size of the audience at the performance on October 30 by the Pro Arte chamber orchestra in Sander’s Theatre at Harvard University. Pro Arte is unique in its model — one of four cooperative orchestras in the entire United States and one that is certainly successful not only in its performances, but in terms of engaging and educating audiences. Recently coming under the leadership of conductor Kevin Rhodes, the ensemble provides crisp, well-planned programs that introduce audiences to often daring music written for the chamber orchestra genre.
Pro Arte started Sunday’s program with a crisp performance of the overture to Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia that not only managed the bel canto aria melodies of the piece but also maintained the winsome affect of street-band. There were goose-bumps and smiles simultaneously from the vigor and nuance of Sunday’s performance.
The ensemble continued with smaller works, first Richard Strauss’s Serenade in E-flat major, Op. 7, for wind band and string bass. Strauss’s piece is clumsy — proceeding from one motive to the next with little or insufficient connective material — albeit predictive of the young composer’s future promise. (Strauss was eighteen at the time of its composition.) Members of the ensemble appeared fully engaged, presenting a well-conceived thesis of the composer’s early work.
The complexities of William Schuman’s Symphony No. 5 for string orchestra were elucidated well in a brief introduction by Rhodes prior to its performance; he explained Schuman’s implementation of irregular imitative motives, meandering melodies or esoteric bitonality. Pro Arte’s performance was a daring read of the work. Rhodes’s tempi throughout the first and third movements resulted in a brash, thrilling interpretation of Schuman’s miniature, while the second movement sauntered in a dream-like transcendence. Led by Rhodes, Pro Arte’s Schuman came to life in a spare sound-world that revelled in stringent, yet ultimately satisfying dissonance.
Sunday afternoon’s performance ended with a well-rounded performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in d minor (K466), one of the few minor works by Mozart, the piece is uncharacteristically brooding. Although the second movement of the concerto lolled from placidity into senescence on Sunday afternoon’s performance, Pro Arte maintained a persistent drive. Spencer Myer joined the ensemble at the keyboard. He not only exhibited a pristine control of the instrument during solo passages — a combination of both technique and interpretation — but also achieved a rich, orchestral gravitas while part of the ensemble. The performance featured the Beethoven cadenzas, adding a welcome Romantic character and, in the third movement, thrilling double-trill passages.
At the beginning of Sunday’s performance, Rhodes bounded onto stage to an immediate standing ovation, asking how many audience members in the packed theater were new to the Pro Arte performance series. The question garnered an affirmative response from more than half of the audience. To be able to draw and engage new audiences is not only a testament to the ensemble itself, but, perhaps more importantly, a hopeful new indicator for the future of the classical music and the arts. Sunday’s performance was the first of the ensemble’s 34th season, entitled “Masterworks Old and New.” The season continues on December 9 with a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Harvard-Radcliffe chorus.