On the cusp (one hopes) of genuine spring, the Boston Classical Orchestra’s April 13th program in Faneuil Hall paid special attention to spring, honored this year’s 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and offered a rare opportunity to hear a beloved masterwork in an alternate scoring by its composer. Conductor Steven Lipsitt adeptly led 14 players through a diversity of orchestral music and one chamber piece arranged for orchestra; baritone Philip Lima displayed strong communicative skills in orchestral Lieder and a fine setting of King’s famous speech.
The program opened with Franz Joseph Haydn’s prelude to “Spring” from The Seasons. The first part of this is in a blustery G minor depicting winter’s tenacious reluctance to give way (how apropos). Though the BCO didn’t have the bracing impact a larger ensemble with percussion would have had, the players’ vigor carried the day. Interestingly, though Faneuil Hall’s very live acoustics blurred rapid articulations and repeated notes in the first part, the counterpoint of the concluding fugue—when spring has triumphed, in the major—came through clearly.
Two Lieder by Mozart followed: “Yearning for Spring,” K. 596, and “In Spring’s Beginning,” K. 597. It was somewhat puzzling that these were presented in instrumental transcription when the services of a fine baritone were available, but Lipsitt’s and the players’ affettuoso readings were enjoyable in any case. In the second, the more introspective of the two, there were a number of eloquent silences which were particularly enjoyable in the reverberant room.
Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata for violin and piano, Op. 24, remains one of his most beloved chamber works. If the BCO’s rendering of the sonata’s final rondo was only a qualified success, it was not due to the playing, which was elegant, but to the arrangement. Surely the work acquired its sobriquet thanks to its lightness of texture and mood, but here all the lower instruments were sometimes asked to play together, resulting in octave doublings and thickened textures quite at variance with the original.
Philip Lima made his first appearance singing songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“From the Youth’s Magic Horn”) as set by Gustav Mahler. In what is essentially folk poetry, Lima’s animated storytelling style was a clear asset though his low notes were sometimes inaudible in the first and last songs. There was subtle drama in “The Sentry’s Night Song” with the dialogue of the sentry and the enigmatic siren who fatally distracts him. The smooth operator of the “Little Rhine Legend” had irresistible charm, enhanced by orchestral chuckles and sighs. “The Drummer Boy” (a galaxy apart from the popular Christmas tune, as Lipsitt stated) was grimly militaristic. Since the BCO has no percussion players, the cellist provided the drumbeats by knocking on his instrument. To his credit, Lima was not afraid to relinquish beauty of tone at times while depicting the escalating dread of the drummer boy going to the gallows. Mahler must have relished setting “Praise from a Superior Knowledge,” a scathingly funny take on music critics. (It only seems salutary that we critics be put in our places every so often.) In a nutshell, the song tells of a singing competition between a nightingale and a cuckoo, judged by an ass: “since he has two enormous ears, he can hear all the better and knows what’s proper!” Lima delivered the narrative with tongue in cheek and portrayed a deliciously pompous ass who, confused by the nightingale’s beautifully melodious song (shades of “too many notes, dear Mozart”), gives the prize to the cuckoo for his simple thirds, fourths, and fifths.
After intermission came “I Have a Dream,” a 1988 setting by Lee Hoiby (1926-2011) of selections from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic speech of August 1963 in Washington, DC. The notion of setting such iconic words must have given the composer pause, but he created a moving and stirring work nonetheless. And Faneuil Hall is, of course, a fortuitous setting, lending its historic resonance when King quotes the Declaration of Independence (“We believe these truths to be self-evident . . .”) and throughout. Hoiby took some opportunities for word-painting—notably, the word “discord”—but declined others such as “symphony of brotherhood,” perhaps as too obvious? Lima’s delivery was noble but straightforward and, in conjunction with Hoiby’s skillful setting, mirrored King’s own. It began reflectively but with a sense of occasion and rose, so gradually it was barely perceptible, until it reached the electrifying peroration of “Free at last! Free at last!” It was regrettable that text was occasionally inaudible, due to less than adequate enunciation as well as the orchestra’s overbalancing the singer. Fortunately, the speech is well known. On the whole, it was a deeply moving marriage of oration and music carried off with great conviction by all the performers. One hopes we won’t have to wait for subsequent anniversaries of the original speech for future performances of this fine work.
The program concluded with something of an oddity: Beethoven’s 1816 arrangement for wind ensemble plus double bass of his Symphony No. 7 in A major. As Lipsitt explained to the audience, in nearly all aristocratic houses of this time there was a resident wind ensemble (“servants who played music,” as he amusingly put it), and the vast majority of music-lovers became acquainted with new symphonies not in concert-hall performances of the full orchestration but in arrangements for these house wind ensembles or for piano duet. The baffling feature of this particular arrangement was its omission of the flute, the wind instrument with a preëminent role in the full orchestration of this symphony. This transcription would likely be most enjoyable to those who have not yet heard the original orchestration; those who have heard the full symphony will, at various points, inevitably miss the strings, the flutes, additional brass, and timpani. Nevertheless, it was surprising what a range of dynamics and colors could be produced by the nine players: two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and double bass. Climaxes in all four movements had an unexpected power and density that suggested the symphonic. The ensemble played without a conductor (Lipsitt supplying the second clarinet) and, despite a few wobbly moments in the first movement, maintained generally admirable coordination. The demanding Scherzo, though accurate, had a tightness of rhythm that suggested grim determination rather than what Wagner called the “Apotheosis of the Dance.” Yet in the finale that followed, similarly challenging, the players seemed to throw caution to the wind with very little loss of accuracy, and we had a wonderfully exciting, devil-may-care conclusion to the concert.
It was a pity that a fairly small number of people experienced the imaginative programming and fine conducting, playing, and singing on this program. Over the past year, the Boston Classical Orchestra’s mix of chamber and orchestral music, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary, supplemented by distinguished soloists, would seem to be a winning combination as well as an optimistic augury for its 34th season.