Handsome inside and out, The First Church in Cambridge, Congregational has acoustics which are quite suitable for large groups and loud music — I well remember hearing, among other things, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony performed there brilliantly, with overwhelming sonic impact, by the Boston Philharmonic under Ben Zander, probably 35 years ago. But last night’s very well-played program with smaller groups showed up all too well how the cavernous resonance could make some ensembles suffer.
A select group of the Pro Arte Orchestra’s principals, plus three good horns, brought forth two works that really belong in the large-chamber-music realm. Dvořák’s Serenade in D Minor (double woodwinds, three horns, cello and bass — a contrabassoon ad libitum is indicated in the score but clearly was not needed) is in four movements — compared with a Mozart or Beethoven serenade or divertimento, for instance, one expects that there should be more than four — all short and relatively undeveloped, with abundant relaxed lyricism that exhibits Dvořák’s remarkable gift for instrumental song.
Schubert’s Octet, D. 803 (string quartet plus bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn — the Beethoven Septet ensemble plus an additional violin), has to be one of the most lovable pieces that he ever wrote — indeed, that anybody ever wrote. He composed it in 1824, during the very same months when he was working on the A minor (“Rosamunde”, D. 804) and D minor “Death and the Maiden,” D. 810) string quartets, and the less-known but beautiful male chorus “Der Gondelfahrer,” D. 809. In another month he would begin writing the big C major sonata for piano four hands (called the “Grand Duo”), D. 812, and the exquisite Variations in A-flat Major, D. 813, also for four hands — what a year that was! It’s for works like these, as well as of course his songs, that history rightly regards Schubert alongside Mozart as the greatest melodist of all time, with incredible riches from one moment to the next, something new and unexpected around every corner but never a bump in the road. (Beethoven, by contrast, made the most of those bumps, and made everyone want to stay there and think about them — but his is a different kind of melodic thinking.) In the Octet, the clarinet is very often at the structural center of the work, thanks to Count Ferdinand Troyer, the astute amateur who commissioned it. Six movements: intro with sonata form, slow movement, scherzo, variations, minuet, and intro with finale. The two intros are thematically and harmonically related. The unusual phrase structure of the allegro finale is noteworthy: 3 + 3 + 2 bars, then a regular 4 + 4, make up the first period. I could go on and on — but never mind, just listen to the music, and keep on listening. (Hard to believe, but this beautiful Octet wasn’t even published, in parts only, until 1851, nor in score until 1898, 70 years after Schubert’s death.)
In both works the performers were all excellent, and all fearless. In the first movement of the Dvořák, it took a little while for the horns to get fully warmed up, but that’s only to be expected in a piece where the horns have so much to do both melodically and harmonically while sustaining the bass register much of the time.
Both works were conducted by the Pro Arte’s new director, Kevin Rhodes. In a hall with so much resonance, with the players spread out on stage in a wide semicircle, it’s likely that the conductor was fully necessary. When I conducted the Dvořák twenty years ago, on an unforgiving small stage, all players faced forward. But in a smaller and more intimate hall, a conductor shouldn’t even have been needed for the Schubert. Let me admit from the start that Rhodes’s gymnastic conducting style is the kind that I most deplore, even though I see it all too frequently even from conductors of world renown. Most of the time he uses a one-size-fits-all large bouncing beat, rising too high and clicking too low, with left hand mirroring the right much too often, as though the strings to the conductor’s left would ever be in doubt about what he was beating for the winds to his right. This is what one might expect to see with a student ensemble, but not with professional players who are more accustomed to watching a smaller beat with a wider range of dynamic expression, and an independent left hand that can control dynamic and expression reaching on either side of the stage. Moreover, I completely disagreed with many of Rhodes’s tempi — the middle section of the Dvořák minuet, the finale of the same work, and the dotted scherzo of the Schubert especially, were way too fast, and in that resonant hall could only result in muddy sound. It’s too bad, because Rhodes demonstrated some fine control of expression from the complex texture in the third movement of the Dvořák, and in the second movement of the Schubert. Let’s say that I look forward to hearing his direction of the full Pro Arte ensemble in a different hall under less trying acoustical conditions.