in: Reviews

October 30, 2012

Longy at Sanders for Romantics and a Premiere


This year’s fresh Conservatory Orchestra of Longy School of Music of Bard College offered a mostly retrospective Romantic era concert at Sanders Theatre on Friday under Julian Pellicano. Violinist Anya Shemetyeva, Longy Concerto Competition winner, played the Ravel Tzigane; and Psalm 51 by Longy Composition Competition winner Daniela DeMatos received its premiere.  Smetana’s Moldau (Vltava, 1874) opened the evening which closed with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943).F

The programmatic emphasis on Eastern European romanticism was resonant in some ways with Ware and van Brunt’s Ruskinian (Venetian) neo-Gothic building, where the concert was performed. Smetana’s piece premiered in 1874, just two years before the theater, dedicated in 1870, was first used for musical performances, its admirable acoustics recognized during the commencement ceremonies for which it was first designed. The memorial passageway’s white marble plaques name students and alumni who died for The Union in the American Civil War in an era that also saw nationalistic contests and political unrest in Eastern Europe. Refugees from that embattled region, welcomed here then, and later, were among those whose intelligence, artistry and skill led them to make strong contributions to the Cambridge (and wider American) scene. Bartók, who settled in New York City after fleeing Nazi Hungary in 1940 was among these. BSO maestro Koussevitzky commissioned the Concerto for Orchestra, one of Bartók’s last completed scores, at the behest of two friends who sought a respectable way for the composer to cover the expenses of his final illness. It premiered across the Charles in 1944, just before his death.

Friday night’s program began well; Smetana’s tone-poem Vltava (The Moldau) was generally pleasant to hear. The strings murmured demurely beneath twin intertwining solo flutes, nicely evoking the two confluent streams that form the piece’s eponymous river. But parts of the work were just, well, clunky, its fluid lines marred by balance, pitch, and ensemble problems. Inaccurately plucked embellishments were fuzzy, buzzy: nothing like the round, full “plop” of raindrops on the water’s surface. The delicate ‘sirens’ moonlit night’ section was enchanting, but the horns’ oom-pah’ed off-beats parodied a carousel calliope in the wedding dance; the lower strings’ sourly pitched, exposed entrances were grating. A rising tide of sound at the theme’s A’ reprise drowned out all the other parts, muddying their lines. Enjoyable as the piece was overall, its flaws nearly breached the limits of my patience with conductor Pellicano, who after all is meant to focus the players’ concentration; encourage unison playing; and balance the horizontal and vertical elements of the piece, not set them at war with each other.

Psalm 51, by pianist and composition major Daniela DeMatos, had earned Longy’s 2012 orchestral commissioning award. Its composer has won other local awards and seen performance of her works in those venues. A short, credibly constructed massive crescendo with a dolce codetta, it offered an exposition of and meditation on the Biblical King David’s state of mind and spirit after being rebuked by the prophet Nathan for his adultery with Bathsheba and connivance in the death of her husband Uriah. Given the composer’s lucidity and deft handling of tonal and atonal materials alike in her other works, I was dismayed at the orchestra’s blocky cacophony and ho-hum rendition of the final redemptive pax anime that was meant to follow. Seeing ones works into performance is no small feat these days: only, more nuance, again, and balance in the parts, it seemed to me, was wanted here.

In Ravel’s Tzigane, violin soloist Anya Shemetyeva sought, and mostly found, the Rom in Romantic. Despite a rough start, wanting tonal focus, her exuberance and technical facility were catching. She was both helped and hindered at times by the voluminous orchestra, which supported some passages quite nicely, but effaced others. Some of this is to do with the scoring. If one listens to the original setting (here, Midori and pianist R. MacDonald), for piano and violin, the thematic development and stylistic contrasts in the piece are meant to be clearer and more transparent. Adding so many more instrumental voices to the soundscape, as Ravel did later, requires their more muted participation as respectful accomplices (here, Stern with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra). But at several points, again, the orchestra was allowed to overwhelm the soloist. Her pizicatti were so playful, her arpeggios fluid, and her mastery of the gestural, tango-like embellishments to the main themes so well-incorporated that an increased sense of onstage energy was certainly understandable. And stray bits of musical energy can easily translate into dynamic increase, or faster tempi. But again it seemed to me that the conductor was inattentive to the finer points of his job, which includes being “ears” for the group, and holding the final blend the audience will hear in mind at all times. However, Shemetyeva held her own, and then some, walking off with a smile and a toss of her head as if to say, “Well, that was fun!” And it was.

Identified as it is with Boston, and accessible as its themes and melodic manipulations are, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, following the intermission, was probably the most strongly conceived and executed work of the evening. It also pointed up the orchestra’s parenchymal layer—its growing edge, the place where the group will need to go deeper to mature. Bartók’s organic linkage of phrases, themes, voicings and compositional forms subvents but does not subvert the work’s energy. Romanticism’s contrasts had become mannered, hackneyed and cartoonish by Bartók’s time. His bold, quarreling pentatonics, and sure handling of texture and phrasing, transformed the heavy-handed sarcasm that socialism imparted to the folkloric side of the Romantic project into something more muscular and malleable. His fleet melismatic diminutions gave ductility and life to the wiry tittering that by then passed for romantic flair. A four-dimensional matrix of ideas, sounds, rhythms and puckish bits of narrative line moves his music-wrapped thought through time and space. It is in the transitions and juxtapositions that such movement is either facilitated or ruptured. Mastery of these makes the performative difference in the Concerto; it was here that the piece wanted more maturity and nuance.

Pitch and balance continued to offer challenges, particularly in the 3rd and 5th sections’ exposed entrances. But the group overcame its difficulties, pulled together and annealed most convincingly into a working whole. The section 2 chorale was pleasantly sêche, not overdone. The rest of the section was light-hearted; its short, bouncy phrases contrasting with longer, leaner ones. Whimsy wants an edge to be heard, though, and Giuoco (or, in the original, Presentation) della coppie wanted for just a bit more characterization in the various instrumental pairs (I saw mismatched Jack-Sprat-like couples being presented at a ball, like Spy’s Pickwickian partners, caricatured in Vanity Fair…a lighthearted trip through the gallery of Lovers and Love.) Soli and due passages in that and other sections showed up highly talented players. I have never heard such a joyful, resonant piccolo, whose fully rounded tones were pure pleasure to listen to; the drum’s soft tattoo was enchanting in its restraint and purity.

Some of my reservations about what sometimes seemed a ham-fisted approach to the podium’s duties could simply have been the first installation of a work-in-progress. The orchestra’s strengths and pleasures still outweighed its more tentative moments. Its faults perhaps stemmed from the demands of an early season concert in an academic setting where student players might just still be getting acquainted, personally and professionally, within the culture that is Longy—itself still in the throes of several shifts and changes of personnel and organizational structures. (Long an independent conservatory, the school merged with Bard College this past April). Pellicano presented a newly amalgamated group of players early in their performance year. More experienced senior students, graduated out of sight, have been supplanted by fall’s new admissions. And despite the flaws, together they offered evocative performances of several demanding pieces. Much potential, then, abides with this group, yet they have further to go. One hopes they will fare well together. I would see wisdom in certain alternative uses of student personnel to address the overkill problem in some sections, and to avoid overstretching players’ concentration so early in the year. Using fewer players in some sections, perhaps even splitting the band into two, might give soli parts more transparency, and newer players less material to master—and more time to work on basics, like pitch—early in the scholastic year.

The settling in of the band to its tasks, especially in the second half of the program, spoke well of its members’ nascent professionalism, in spite of, or even perhaps because of, its conductor, who after all had brought a large crew together and captained the ship to shore amidst the scholastic and aesthetic riptides of Cantabridgian culture, now overlaid with a New York state of mind.

Some additional notes and references are here.

Note: This review has received a post-publication edit.

Donna La Rue researches, writes and presents on the medieval liturgical arts, focusing on the town of Sens. She has published critical reviews for the Phoenix and has taught integrated arts and art history courses for local universities.


  1. Dear Ms. La Rue,

    I can understand your opinions about balance and intonation but I find your berating of Maestro Pellicano to be insulting. I thought that Maestro Pellicano did a wonderful job in leading a young orchestra through such difficult works. I found his conducting to be clear, concise, and assertive, all great qualities in a fine conductor. I would also like to note that he conducts an orchestra not a band.

    I personally did not find his bowing arrogant in any way. He acknowledged his wonderful orchestra players and showed gratitude to the people who attended the concert. I had the privilege of meeting him after the concert and I found him to be a sweet, genuine person, in contrast to your description of his character.

    I find that most of the reviews that the Boston Intelligencer has when showcasing student performances lacks the insight of the true spirit of the presentation. These are young performers with a fresh spirit who should not be compared to the Boston Symphony. Writing reviews like this one does not encourage young performers. We should encourage them to keep sharing their music with the world; acknowledge their faults but praise their accomplishments.

    Comment by Jessie — November 1, 2012 at 7:13 pm

  2. When a group such as the Longy Conservatory Orchestra presents itself at Sanders Theatre, they are asking to be taken seriously as an ensemble.

    Ms. La Rue did so- and with some generosity, except maybe for the conductor.

    Comment by de novo2 — November 1, 2012 at 7:56 pm

  3. The widespread use of the logical fallacy ‘ad hominem’ in this review brings the credibility of the reviewer into question.

    Comment by Ken — November 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm

  4. Well it’s no secret that Longy is not exactly a bastion of high standards and musical excellence.

    Comment by Walter Steiner — November 4, 2012 at 2:55 pm

  5. Although Ms. La Rue has clearly failed to give any semblance of a coherent or even-handed account of the performance in question, she has deftly succeeded in illustrating the provincial elitism so prevalent in the Boston musical “scene”, and unfortunately of the classical music world in general.

    I read the faux-intellectual words and conclusions of Ms. La Rue with great dismay. Ms. La Rue makes it clear to the reader that her overarching goal is to demonstrate to her audience her self-acclaimed superiority. Her interest seems to be to show how much she “knows” and “understands” about music. Unfortunately, as she has made clear, this is surprisingly little indeed. While in her own mind she may have described the performance accurately on account of her own untrained ears, she goes on to make a number of assertions based on the subjective interpretation of surface appearance and body language. Her claims of “hubris” on the account of the excellent conductor Jullian Pellicano are laughable. One gathers from her juvenile, parochial writing that Ms. La Rue’s expectation for conductors is based on some type of elementary or middle school band experience. Or perhaps the recitation of Gregorian Chant in period dress at a Cantabrigian cemetary. In any case, her writing clearly demonstrates that she has little idea of the symphonic tradition, performance canon, or basic general operation.

    Indeed, only the following information is offered about Ms. La Rue on the Intelligencer website:

    Donna La Rue researches, writes and presents on the medieval liturgical arts, focusing on the town of Sens. She has published critical reviews for the Boston Phoenix and has taught integrated arts and art history courses for local universities.

    With her credentials in the medieval liturgical arts, one wonders if Ms. La Rue would also feel qualified to write for journals about the financial world, tennis, or software engineering. Yet it would be impossible for someone that harnesses the level of self-aggrandizement that Ms. La Rue does to recognize her own shortcomings. Without any training or qualifications, she is content to offer her mis-understandings and mis-interpretations as fact. Shameful.

    There ought to be a greater responsibility when writing on behalf of an organization such as the Intelligencer. One wonders what gives Ms. La Rue the right to make such slanderous statements? Or why she had even been given this task in the first place.

    I would advise Ms. La Rue that at a minimum, leading an orchestra of such varied talents and abilities requires nothing short of firm, steady leadership. Unfortuantely, due to her own ignorance the author seems to have mis-interpreted that as “hubris”. The orchestral program at Longy was near death before the appointment of Pellicano, and through his decisive work on the podium he has wasted no time in transforming the situation into something quite positive. As with any great conductor, the care for his students is evident in his high expectations for them. Indeed, I have recommended without hesitation sending my own students to his program in the past. Furthermore, I have been privileged to personally witness the growth in the orchestral program at Longy since his appointment in 2009.

    Both Pellicano and Longy have worked incredibly hard on behalf of their students, most of whom do not enjoy the same luxury of privilege or resources as their Ivy League counterparts. Longy, now together with Bard College, has proceeded down an incredibly innovative track. Part of that innovation was hiring a trained, experienced conductor for the position. In the same situation, many similar-sized institutions would have looked inward toward the culture of protectionism, but Longy chose incredibly wisely. No doubt their approach will bear the fruits of the labors of Pellicano and his students throughout the coming years. Indeed, whether Ms. La Rue realizes it or not, the orchestra at Longy could not have begun to attempt such an ambitious program three years ago. While Ms. La Rue seems to interpret the use of Sanders Theater for this performance as some ego-fulfilling fantasy, the stark reality is that there are relatively few adequate performance venues for orchestras in Boston. Had Ms. La Rue a clue about the subject matter, she would realize that this is particularly true for a piece written and orchestrated in such a way as the Bartók. The decision to hold the performance in Sanders Theater was undoubtedly made to offer the students at Longy the chance at a level playing field with reasonable acoustics. With the scarcity of options, I would not have hesitated to do the same.

    The Intelligencer says that their “reviewers are drawn from Boston’s most distinguished musicians, composers, music academics and musically literate listeners.” If this is truly the case, perhaps the Intelligencer should reconsider its mission. I would politely suggest that the organization look deep inside itself for a more spirited message they could convey about music to New England. Otherwise, it is likely that their current message will continue to be ignored.

    Dr. Christopher Hill

    Comment by Dr. Christopher Hill — November 5, 2012 at 12:20 am

  6. When Christopher Taylor opines that the Intelligencer should offer a “more spirited message,” I conclude that he is suggesting that our role be as cheerleader for local institutions. That would certainly be an effective way to bore readers and to diminish our credibility.

    Since there have been no comments arguing with Ms. La Rue’s characterization of the playing of the Longy Orchestra, then one must conclude that she is not far off in her descriptions. And to some extent she does actually spread cheer about the Longy Orchestra. “And despite the flaws, together they offered evocative performances of several demanding pieces. Much potential, then, abides with this group, yet they have further to go. One hopes they will fare well together.”

    Perhaps she will have a chance to hear them later in the season and report on their progress.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 5, 2012 at 8:38 am

  7. Maybe Ms. La Rue, who is an expert in dance, could offer Jullian Pellicano some lessons on his bowing technique. A more Japanese style might work…

    Comment by de novo2 — November 5, 2012 at 9:43 am

  8. “Parenchymal layer”? Oh, come off it.

    And by the way, it’s “Cantabrigian,” not “Cantabridgian.”

    Comment by Richard Buell — November 5, 2012 at 3:47 pm

  9. The major problem with this article lies in the first paragraph. Apparently, Ms. La Rue went to Sanders theater to expecting to hear a “retrospective Romantic era” concert but instead heard Ravel, Bartok, and De Matos in addition to the only “Romantic” composer on the program, Smetana. Any basic history of Western Art Music survey course at any college, university or whatever should tell her that Ravel and Bartok did not compose nor live in the Romantic era and a world premiere today does not in any way constitute a “retrospective Romantic era” concert. Ms. La Rue’s vague causes alarm as to why anyone would take her seriously and also sheds light to her superficial and misguided understanding of music history. The depth of her understanding of music history and performances seems to only go as far as whatever she found on wikipedia, youtube, and a superficial, hardly academic anthology and textbook on classical music by Julius Jacobson II MD.

    Comment by Paul — November 9, 2012 at 11:40 pm

  10. Oops, I mis-typed and left out the word “credentials” in the sentence beginning with “Ms. La Rue’s vague…” But I hope this second post draws attention to it because I cannot see anything in the credentials that the Intelligencer offers that would qualify Ms. La Rue to review music.

    Comment by Paul — November 9, 2012 at 11:44 pm

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