The skies over Boston yesterday afternoon may have been leaden, but the sun was blazing inside Jordan Hall as the Boston Civic Symphony presented a program filled with warmth and a rather disconcerting amount of wildlife. Question: What’s the oldest symphony in Boston? Okay, the answer’s obvious. Less obvious is the fact that Boston’s second oldest symphony is the Boston Civic, founded in 1924. Comprised of amateur players and promising student musicians, BCS presents four diverse programs each season, reaching out to a broad audience and emphasizing orchestral training and experience. Max Hobart, now in his 32nd year as BCS Music Director, has a list of accomplishments that makes him seem at least 114 years old: violinist with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, concertmaster for the Boston Opera Company, concertmaster for the Handel and Haydn Society, assistant concertmaster of the BSO for 27 years beginning under Erich Leinsdorf, ad infinitum. He’s actually a very vibrant 75, in case you’re keeping score.
Sunday’s concert can be summed up in a single word: fun! The nexus among the three compositions on the program seemed to be a childlike sense of guileless wonder and enthusiasm. Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, No. 10 in E-flat Major, K. 365, got things off to an effervescent start. Written to be performed with his older sister Maria Anna (“Nannerl”), this is Mozart at his sparkly best. The pianos engage in a frisky dialogue, with the orchestra assuming a secondary role. This afternoon’s pianists were the husband-and-wife duo, Leslie Amper and Randall Hodgkinson. As far as stage presence was concerned, Amper was very much yin to husband Hodgkinson’s yang. While Randall’s demeanor was highly animated, with expressive arm gestures making it seem at times as if the keyboard were electrified (he even turned pages with gusto), Leslie was far less outwardly demonstrative, projecting poise and calm. Interestingly, in spite of these dramatically different approaches, the actual sounds generated by the couple were virtually indistinguishable. Both produced a ringing, expressive tone infused with vibrancy. Maestro Hobart’s conducting style was precise and efficient; the orchestra polished and energized. While letting this glittery music wash over you, it’s sobering to contemplate the fact that Mozart’s personal life was actually anything but sunny at the time of its creation in 1779. Recently returned to Salzburg from an unsuccessful foray to Paris and still mourning the sudden death of his mother the year before, Wolfgang in his early 20s was seemingly far from the happy place he constructed in his musical world.
And now for a bit of unabashed frivolity: Carnival of the Animals, by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Tossed off in just a few days for pre-Lenten festivities in 1886, this highly amusing and evocative work consists of 14 brief movements constituting a wide-ranging and extremely colorful menagerie. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Saint-Saëns gleefully quoted fellow composers Offenbach, Berlioz, and Mendelssohn as he made lions roar (growly lower register of piano), tortoises plod (slow-motion Offenbach Can-Can), mules hee-haw (strings), aquariums shimmer (flute/piano/strings), swans glide (cello), fossils dance (xylophone); he even managed to tame the wild pianist (scales). Interweave the clever introductory verses concocted by Ogden Nash in 1949 and the result is an irresistible romp. Pianists Amper and Hodgkinson returned, performing with playful whimsy; conductor Hobart seemed to choose consistently spot-on tempi, occasionally turning to puckishly wink at the audience; and WGBH radio host Cathy Fuller provided mellifluous, palate- (and palette-) perfect narration, deftly handling all manner of Ogdenacious neologisms. Besides the swans and the aquarium, the highlight for this listener was the platypus movement. (Okay, there was no platypus movement, but Saint-Saëns no doubt could have pulled it off.) Excerpts of this work have woven their way into popular culture; enlightening and entertaining to hear the piece performed in its entirety. Truth be told, at its conclusion my inner child was imploring the orchestra to “play it again!” Judging by the myriad chortles and guffaws around me, guessing I wasn’t the only one.
The most serious work was saved for last: Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Actually, by Mahlerian standards, this is a relatively svelte and upbeat composition. Musically depicting a selection of life’s travails as viewed through the eyes of an innocent child, it lasts ‘merely’ an hour. As with the Mozart, the backdrop for this piece was actually anything but upbeat, given that Mahler was struggling with vehement anti-Semitism in the Viennese Court. In Mahler’s artfully crafted orchestration, individual instruments are quite exposed, particularly in the second movement. The BCS was more than up to this test, with clear, coherent strings, and warm woodwinds. Admittedly there were a few clams in the brass section, but perhaps these were escapees from the Saint-Saëns zoo. The final movement is a description of heaven by a perceptive and optimistic child, here exquisitely voiced by soprano Maria Ferrante. Lyrically performed, with a wide range of color and depth of expression, Ferrante’s rendition exuded apropos purity and sweetness. One minor drawback to this performance: minimal eye contact with the audience. I’d humbly suggest perhaps a bit more familiarity with the score. Actually, given her level of accomplishment, it’s quite startling to realize that Maria was originally a classical guitarist, her vocal gifts only being revealed when she happened to take a college voice class on a whim.
Uplifting way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And by the time we exited the Hall, the sun was out! The Boston Civic Symphony’s next concert is Sunday, April 29.