Last Saturday night the Longwood Symphony Orchestra presented its sixth and final concert of the 2011 – 2012 season in Jordan Hall. Guest conductor Ronald Feldman, a finalist in the orchestra’s search for a new music director, presented music by Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms in a concert supporting the Rachel Molly Markoff Foundation.
The concert opened with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910). The Longwood strings were divided into a double orchestra and ranged throughout the stage to take advantage of the hall’s acoustics and emphasize the antiphonal writing in this music as well as the undulating waves of sound. There was good ensemble playing throughout, with a wide range of tone-color. The dynamic range skewed a bit more towards the forte-end of the spectrum than the hall required. I found the sound at times more labored than the free-flowing ease of a fantasia would suggest, perhaps a result of the elevated dynamics.
A larger ensemble took the stage along with Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello, for Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (1877). This bravura piece for cello and orchestra exists in the composer’s version and in the earliest published one, “modified” and re-arranged by the dedicatee and original performer, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen (1840-1890). It is this latter version, more widely known, which seemed to be performed at this concert. Beginning with a theme that pays homage to Mozart but has nothing Mozartian in its character, the work shows Tchaikovsky’s usual melodic inventiveness and wide-ranging harmonic perambulations. It also encompasses the entire register of the cello, and the 18 minutes of its duration is a cello equivalent of running a marathon. Narek Hakhnazaryan performed this work in the XIVth International Tchaikovsky Competition last May and it is clear why he swept the competition. He owned this music, thoroughly, utterly, and completely. The variations sang and growled by turn, were declamatory, wistful, playful. It was, simply, a stunning performance. Feldman and Longwood offered sensitive collaboration throughout, and the interplay between Hakhnazaryan and concertmaster Sherman Jia was responsive and beautiful. The immediate standing ovation and sustained, thunderous applause brought Hakhnazaryan back to the stage for an encore: the Sarabande from Bach’s Suite No. 3 in C for Solo Cello, a delightful work of weight and introspection that offered a perfect contrast to the Tchaikovsky.
Following intermission, the full Longwood Symphony Orchestra took the stage for Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 (1877). It is remarkable to think of this and the Tchaikovsky being coeval, because they are such different compositions. With Romantic magnitude, the Brahms ruminates expansively on a theme across the breadth of the full orchestra. In this performance, with full strings sections and doubling in brass and woodwinds, we heard a reading of this work very different from Sir Charles Mackerras’ essay “in the style of the original Meiningen performances.” Whether one favors a smaller or larger ensemble for Brahms may be an academic question, but it does correlate to the sound-world created in performance, and Feldman and Longwood gave a very accomplished reading of it — challenging to perform, so it is no mean feat. This reading of Brahms reveled in the individual moments of music-making, which gave the performance weight and pleasant amplitude. What I missed, though, was a sense of passion and drive, easier to achieve with a smaller ensemble of course, but not beyond the scope of this group. Still, I do regret not hearing a clearer sense of the overall structure of the symphony, the better to appreciate Brahms’ formidable compositional skills.
The concert showcased the strength of Longwood Symphony Orchestra, now in its 29th year, as well as the orchestra’s continuing collaboration with Young Concert Artists that delivered Narek Hakhnazaryan as soloist for this concert — an obvious source of joy and delight to the orchestral musicians themselves, as their own warm applause of his performance attested. For those wanting to know more about the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, Board President Dr. Lisa Wong has published the story of the ensemble in her book, Scales to Scalpels.