in: Reviews

April 23, 2012

Those Amazing Mendelssohns


Is the music of Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn, 1805-1847) finally gaining its rightful place? It might seem that her time has come, to look at the programming that took place this weekend. The Boston Classical Orchestra featured her Overture on a program at Faneuil Hall on April 21st with two works by her brother Felix, and the Claremont Trio was performing her piano trio in a sold-out concert on Sunday at the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall.

While there have been performances of Hensel’s Overture since it was discovered, recorded and performed by The Women’s Philharmonic in the early 1990s (including one in 1996 by the Tufts University Orchestra, directed by George Mathew, BCO Director Steven Lipsitt pointed out that this was the Boston premiere of this work.) Since the piece is not only one of historical interest but also one of great artistic vigor and beauty, this premiere status is rather astounding; but it does seem to be true, and perhaps it was even (could it be??) the professional premiere of the Overture on the East Coast.

Let it be the first performance of many. The BCO’s crisp and energetic reading made a compelling case for the Overture. It begins with a slow introduction that skillfully builds anticipation, using sustained winds to build a feeling of suspense. The ensemble’s “splayed” seating of the violins — first on the left and seconds on the right — was used to great effect in this work, first in the cascade of 16th-notes that wrapped the audience in virtuosity and transported us from the introduction into the Allegro. Elsewhere this seating highlighted vivid exchanges of motives between the violins. Some unexpected harmonic turns enlivened the transition to the more lyrical second theme. Lipsitt brought out the strength and inventiveness of the composer’s use of sonata form, for instance by broadening out the tempo at the end of the development section to add to the sense of brilliance when the trumpets anticipate the recapitulation. A closing theme offered an elegiac soaring quality (over the continuous momentum of the work), and a coda was both a drive to the end but also introduced more ideas and development.

In his insightful comments, Lipsitt observed that while it was her only work for orchestra alone, that she did write other music with orchestra, including an oratorio. The 2010 biography of Fanny Hensel, by Larry Todd offers some rich insights into the Overture, including its musical context. He suggests she wrote it in in the spring of 1832, building on her recent orchestral experience of composing three cantatas and a concert aria. While Todd states “the stimulus of the work is unknown,” a possible motivation came to me when I read Fanny’s words that “on Nov. 1, I delivered a dead baby girl.” Could the Overture of the previous spring have been the product of the excitement and good news of her learning of her pregnancy? Perhaps if the child (which would have been Fanny’s second) had lived, the Overture would have been served as the first movement of a symphony (which Lipsitt pointed out it aptly could do). That, of course is speculation, but Todd’s rich and engaging biography reveals much about how Fanny’s composing was woven into the fabric of her too-short life.

While the next work, Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, certainly is a contrast — being well-known, the performance by the BCO did offer fresh insights. Faneuil Hall is a lovely venue (with outside noise being the one real drawback), and the BCO slogan “Great music up close” is apt in light of the intimacy that the space offers. Soloist Irina Muresanu offered a luscious velvety tone and complete command of every nuance and flourish. The one ragged edge was in the third movement, the orchestral doubling of the soloist’s sprightly, staccato eighths just never coalesced into the perfection of ensemble that was heard elsewhere.

I was happy to be introduced to Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1, op. 11. The first movement had lovely moments of lyricism and interesting effects of colors such as an oscillating figure that was heard in the winds. Then followed an Andante that grew out of a tender and touching “song without words.” The Minuet (perhaps) drew inspiration from Mozart’s G minor Symphony No. 40, with its fixation on driving contrapuntal exchanges, but with a mood much more charming and graceful. The movement’s Trio section was more brooding and moody; Lipsitt effectively enhanced its emotion in easing the tempo before the return of the Minuet.

The final movement also reminded me of Mozart — again, the G minor symphony — in the intensity of the exchange of antecedent and consequent phrases of the opening motive of its finale, and his Symphony No. 41 with its prominent fugue, although the fugal treatment is used very differently here. Another compelling section (the form seemed to be a structured sequence of episodes, perhaps some kind of sonata rondo) was the passage with the spare pizzicato strings underlying an expansive clarinet melody; this moment of a startling originality returned later with flute doubling the clarinet. The dramatic accelerando and shift to a major key that ends the movement and may be a bit formulaic, but nevertheless it was effective to bring the work — and the concert — to a rousing and exciting conclusion.

My only other criticism of the orchestra is that they could use one more cello — the two players are excellent, but with first and second violins at six and six, I often felt the need for an additional cello to give more presence to their part.

The lack of any backstage in Faneuil Hall might be seen as a disadvantage, but I find it charming, to have not only the musicians but also the conductor and soloist pass through the middle of the audience in order to reach the front of the hall; this is another aspect of the “up close” slogan.

Lipsitt was a graceful, precise and elegant presence on the podium. He was clear and unobtrusive, but shared a wonderful electrical connection with the musicians — who obviously enjoy working with him. In his comments to the audience, he apologized (mopping his brow) for the warmth of the hall. I’ve mentioned here before my opinion that concert dress should reflect the athleticism of the musicians’ job, with practicality and comfort coming before tradition. This is one area in which men face more constriction than women: the tuxedo and suit jacket are just not designed to encourage free use of the arms. So, by all means, guys, if you’re warm you really should take your jackets off!

And one further comment on Lipsitt’s comments: he made a reference to one of the statues in the Hall, saying it was “Susan B. Anthony.” Well, as a representative of the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail I’d be happy to tell anyone about the significance of Lucy Stone; perhaps in Faneuil Hall as a pre-pre-concert presentation, or I invite Maestro Lipsitt and supporters of the BCO to join me on a walking tour of Beacon Hill or Back Bay.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her website is here.


  1. *Mea maxima culpa! My school-aged daughter even did a report on Lucy Stone for her social studies class! (At least I didn’t say that the bust of Frederick Douglass was really rocker James Brown…)

    Many thanks to Liane Curtis for her alert attendance at our concert.


    –Steven Lipsitt (BCO music director)

    Comment by Steven Lipsitt — April 23, 2012 at 4:53 pm

  2. Speaking of works by Fanny Hensel that are all too rarely played, tomorrow (May 7, Monday, at 8 pm) Hensel’s Cantata, “Job” can be heard in  a performance by the Rochester Philharmonic, a streaming online broadcast of their performance from the fall. The streaming player (WXXI, 91.5 Classical) is here Here is the schedule for the RPO Broadcasts hope this work can be performed in Boston sometime!!

    Comment by Liane Curtis — May 6, 2012 at 8:44 pm

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