Concerts by the Longwood Symphony Orchestra present the reviewer with a conundrum. On one hand, the ensemble is at its heart a community orchestra, suggesting one set of expectations. On the other, the LSO operates at such a high caliber that it is tempting to apply the level of criticism used with its (non-community) professional counterparts. This task was not made easier by the ambitious programming seen at Jordan Hall on Saturday night.
The current LSO season features a mix of new and more familiar music at each concert. Saturday’s program included a new piece by Andrew List, Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7, and a powerful finish courtesy of Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major. This consistent effort to program newer music in many ways recalls the forward-looking thrust and energy of James Levine’s early seasons with the BSO. The LSO’s orientation, however, is more local, from its membership base to the choice of a local composer to the selection of a locally based soloist for the concerto.
The evening opened with the world premiere of Sholem Aleichem’s Clock, a short piece of program music by Berklee College of Music professor Andrew List. As the title suggests, the work is based on a Yiddish short story by Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich 1850-1916). (His stories about Tevye the Dairyman were famously adapted into the musical Fiddler on the Roof.) In brief, the narrative follows a rabbi’s mechanical clock that becomes possessed and runs sonically amuck. Defying a series of increasingly extravagant repairs, the clock works up a growing cacophony of sound until it explodes. Along the way, it produces a wide variety of noises, some of which recall or evoke elements of traditional Jewish village life.
The musical adaptation of the story begins with a dark and mysterious sound that rises out of the string section. Soon, this is colored by a series of discordant sounds from the winds and brass over the strings. The music grows ominous, retreats, becomes mechanized in texture, dissolves, and returns in new guises as the rabbi attempts to fix his crazy clock.
List’s piece makes many demands on its players (who rose strongly to the occasion, especially the brass and percussion), but not on its listeners. His chosen aesthetic and harmonic idiom recall that of his one-time teacher Samuel Headrick, in that the narrative progression seems to directly and logically shape the character of the score. Even at the most complex and layered points in the musical fabric, it was always easy to conceive the accompanying actions and events in the story. Conductor Ronald Feldman led the ensemble through more than a few devilish passages with aplomb before starting a steamroller buildup to the clock’s explosion. Following this timepiece-induced workout, most of the percussion section left the stage, leaving Jeremy Lang to hold down the sectional fort on timpani for the rest of the program. Sholem Aleichem’s Clock ran for only about nine minutes, but their rest was well earned.
The second musical offering was Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 in C Major, op. 105. Just over 20 minutes in length, this single-movement work was penned in 1924, when the composer was already 59 years of age and his “Nordic” sound was fully developed. The piece demands both great subtlety and brashness; to meet the challenge, Feldman laid down his baton and conducted with great shapeliness, drawing a rich sound palette from the players and weaving an array of tempi.
The thicket of melodic episodes and transitions was sometimes overwhelming. The violins favored a sound that was more warm than crisp; this avoided the cold austerity that often colors the work, but a few passages might have benefited from a stronger attaque. (This was only problematic in one section when the brass entirely covered up the violins’ pizzicati.) With most of the percussion absent, the massed cellos and basses anchored the sonic texture; when the robust cello section was cut loose for its featured moments, it excelled with gusto. Many difficult passages were given to the brass and woodwinds, with trombonist Peter Cook delivering an admirable rendition of a key theme. More could be said, but few were displeased in the end.
After intermission the LSO delivered Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 77. Before beginning, Feldman recounted playing this piece as a young cellist in the BSO and admiring the violin soloist—the very same Miriam Fried who represented the role that memorable evening.
There was little question about where the focus should lie during the concerto. The stagehands carved out a large physical space for Fried to move in as she played; Feldman carved out a matching sonic space for the same. His management of the orchestral dynamics, tempi, and phrasing was tailored to feature the soloist, with the orchestra in a distinctly supporting role in the first and third movements. This is not to say that their task was easy—the concerto makes strong demands on all of its players—but that the soloist/ensemble relationship was not one of competition.
The first movement of the Brahms began with a series of intricately balanced segments, with the full orchestra in strong form. From this emerged Fried’s first solo passage, carved out with forceful strokes. Dynamicism was the watchword for her performance: her assertive opening sound was only the first of many that she displayed. From passage to passage, her playing was lyrical and sensitive, powerful and aggressive, measured and contemplative, and more. Fried’s physical motions were no small part of the equation, with broad gestures that anticipated the start of phrases and a bobbing and weaving dance that further shaded her playing. This multi-sensory experience was particularly lush during a double-stopped section and her masterful rendition of the cadenza. When the orchestra returned, the woodwinds carried a number of prominent passages, of which those given to Tobi-Ann Kocher (flute) and Thomas Sheldon (oboe) were the standouts.
The relatively short second movement (Adagio) of this concerto puts the solo violin on the back burner and hands the spotlight to the oboe. Thomas Sheldon again rose to the occasion with a stirring performance of some very challenging passages. Fried’s comparative rest was brief, though, and she was soon back in the limelight as Feldman led the orchestra into the fast-paced rondo-finale. It was a powerhouse finish to a season-opening concert.