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Star Gazing with Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra


Yesterday afternoon in All Saints Parish, Brookline, Pro Arte presented “Star Gazing,” featuring music by Duparc, Zwilich, and Mozart. Kevin Rhodes led the ensemble in a diverse program with some great results.

The program opened with Eugène Marie Henri Fourques Duparc (1848–1933), Aux Etoiles. This brief work (not nearly as long as the composer’s name) is one of the few remaining compositions by Duparc; when he renounced musical composition he destroyed his works. Pity; this entr’acte for an unpublished play is a captivating work of lush Romanticism and worthy of a student of César Franck. Despite the lofty title, the music begins in the low strings and remains solidly grounded to the bass line throughout. This is music of longing, of an earthly reach for something higher. Pro Arte gave a sensitive and nuanced reading of Duparc’s short, yet expansive, composition.

Next came the Boston-area premiere of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s (1939 -) Shadows, with Jeffrey Biegel at the piano. Pro Arte is part of a consortium which helped commissioned this work and Biegel is the dedicatee and sole performer to date. Biegel proposed the title, thinking of the shadows of French heritage which marks New Orleans (site of the work’s first performance in October 2011 with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Carlos Miguel Prieto). Zwilich played off this idea and created a meditation on global migration and ancestral heritage more broadly. Biegel and Rhodes discussed some of this background before performing this concerto-in-all-but-name. The 20-minute work is in three movements. The beginning is subdued, misty, with pizzicato chords over sustained lower strings, building to the piano entrance; this A-section returns at the end of the movement, after a B-section that includes a lovely bassoon dirge. The idiom includes early rag time and New Orleans jazz references, while the harmonic language remains classically that of the 20th-century. The second movement opens with a New Orleans two-step rhythm, recognizable from jazz funeral processions; the brass chorale ushers in the piano with a swinging, syncopated, lilting melody. Here most especially I was reminded of the Shostakovich Jazz Suites; Zwilich captures a similar spirit in her writing. The third and final movement highlights rhythmic propulsion, and expands on usual brass and piano technique. Biegel and Pro Arte gave a captivating, energetic, and approachable reading of Shadows, to the great pleasure of those in the audience. Rhodes announced that this new piece was worked up to such a high level of performance on only one rehearsal, due to the events of last week; I commend all for coming together to give such a wonderful and wide-ranging performance.

Following intermission, Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and Rhodes returned to the stage for Mozart, Symphony no. 41 in C, K. 551“Jupiter.” Rhodes conducted with uniformly large gestures (as throughout the concert); here, the musicians responded in kind. After the wealth of contrasts in Zwilich, their paucity here stood out. The Menuetto tempo was quite slow, which did not help with the tracing of larger structures in this symphony. If only the concert had ended with the Zwilich.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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