Let each celebrate the arrival of spring in his own way. Last Saturday, March 17, the Boston Classical Orchestra presented a spring-themed chamber orchestra program in Faneuil Hall amidst the crowds of green-sequined- and jersey-clad faux-Irish revelers. Pleasing but forgettable arrangements of George Chadwick and Brahms were paired with a truly fresh and invigorating interpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with Daniel Stepner on violin. (A work which also chronicles revelry and revels in boisterousness; perhaps we high-culture concertgoers do indeed have common ground with the St. Patrick’s Day partiers in all their drunken glory.)
Music Director Steven Lipsitt arranged the first two selections for string orchestra: Brahms’s Der Frühling, originally for soprano or tenor and piano, and Chadwick’s Spring Song, originally for women’s choir with piano. In between, Lipsitt spoke briefly about the “bloom of spring” running through the program’s first half as a common thread; the Boston musical climate of Chadwick’s day, highly influenced as it was by European romanticism; and the pre-recording era tradition of transcriptions. A good transcription demands a lot of composer, transcriber, and performers equally; Lipsitt’s arrangements were intermittently successful. The Brahms was mainly comprised of a busy, sing-song accompaniment which never quite achieved the undulating smoothness of fine pianism, and the “singers,” violin and cello soloists, were a bit at variance on their joint melodies. The Chadwick, similarly orchestrated, grew more successful as the orchestra acclimated to a common sound; changes in register gave shape to the piece and direction to the accompanimental waves, which the quartet of solo violins rode elegantly.
The third selection, Chadwick’s Serenade in F for string orchestra (a North American premiere, according to Lipsitt), did indeed evoke the new music scene of a bygone, genteel era. Paired with the reminder of yet another era of local history — in the form of surrounding paintings featuring such dignitaries as the signers of the Declaration of Independence and Washington next to his horse’s rump — the appeal of heritage was clear. And although I don’t regularly go out of my way to experience Chadwick’s brand of innocuous melodicism, I found the connotations of national cultural identity interesting to ponder (especially in the context of the hubbub outside the hall). As Americans, we are so intertwined with the Old World (wherever that may be) that we are constantly defining ourselves. Do we do it by creating our own chapter of the club (Chadwick and his Romantic proclivities), by loudly and casually embracing our real or adopted heritage (perhaps by painting shamrocks on our cheeks), or through deliberate efforts to display our originality and to innovate (thinking of Ives, for example, and the myriad of other American composers who have lived and worked in the century and a half since Chadwick)? In any case, kudos to the BCO for giving this little piece a performance; if it was a rather rough one, such is the way of a composition given life for the first time, without the benefit of the polish and refinement of past iterations.
In contrast, the orchestra and soloist Daniel Stepner were faced with the opposite problem in presenting one of the most beloved works of the Baroque cannon: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. I was highly anticipating the interpretation that Stepner, who has a diverse career including longtime former concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society, would bring to this crowd-pleaser. Many modern orchestras barrel out lush, note-heavy readings of Baroque classics and many period orchestras present self-consciously “correct” ones; is there a tasteful meeting-place? The answer is yes, and Stepner and the BCO found it. Performing on a modern instrument, displaying the body and depth necessary to stand up to a healthy chamber orchestra, Stepner’s attitude and technique nevertheless bore the stamp of connoisseurship. His playing was risky, the perfect tribute to a composer known for madcap virtuosity in a time when improvisation and invention were the rule. This sense of daring was evident in the speeding tempos of movements like the opening of “Summer,” his creative and supple use of bow (the cultivation of a wide and experimental range of bowstrokes being one of the great traits of virtuosic Baroque players), and most of all in his constant engagement with the orchestra, even when navigating a slew of runs and double-stops. He shone equally well in slow movements; the famous largo from “Winter” was a unique and moving interlude, romantic in the emotion and scope of the large gestures, Baroque in the small quirks of detail and ornamentation.
The Four Seasons was very much a joint effort, however, and the orchestra’s participation and response to Stepner’s leadership brought the pieces to life. Along with Lipsitt at the harpsichord, Stepner’s role was less of a maestro with dutiful minions than that of a ringleader in ordered mayhem. The violins, in antiphonal seating, shimmered with heat in “Summer,” throwing blustery cascades of notes back and forth. The group followed the recitative-like twists and turns of “Autumn” with aplomb, and frequently achieved just the perfect amount of presence without overwhelming the soloist in accompanimental sections like the taut sul ponticello backup in “Winter” and (my personal favorite) the lumbering barking-dog viola part in “Spring.” The orchestra-soloist dynamic was perhaps best summed up in the slow movement of “Summer,” in which Stepner responded to the welling thunder-rumbles of the orchestra with poised bow and raised eyebrows, turning a full 360 degrees to draw the players together in Vivaldi’s project of scene-painting. I was left marveling at the complexity that emerges when a performance examines the many collaborative aspects of a concerto beyond mere technical virtuosity.
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor. She currently also is the BMInt intern.