in: Reviews

November 11, 2013

Civic Engagement with Two Germans

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The Boston Civic Symphony, beginning its 89th season yesterday at Jordan Hall, is a difficult ensemble to describe since the League of American Orchestras banned use of the term community orchestra and 10 years later has not come up with an alternative, according to executive director Michele Mortensen. The Civic is cooperative and broad-based, seeking its players and audiences from numerous communities, but what makes it distinctive is its commitment to mentoring young players. Of the band of 75, a volunteer core of about 45 (many of whom are also generous contributors) sustains the enterprise with the aid of a few ringers for the benefit of many mentees and loyal listeners. So shall we call it a magnet orchestra? A mentoring orchestra?

While Max Hobart, music director for 34 years, was at home recuperating from an automobile accident, assistant conductor Taichi Fukumura stepped up on short notice. “I was originally asked to just conduct the concerto, and that was also with 2 week’s notice. Last Monday, on the day of the accident, Max made a call to his wife from inside his trapped car to ask me to rehearse the full program that evening. That was when I took on the three remaining pieces to fill for Max. The orchestra has been phenomenally responsive and supportive all the way through the week.” Fukumura also is assistant conductor of the Greater Boston Youth Symphony, a violin student of Peter Zazofsky, and founder of Boston Accompanietta, “an orchestra that I started with a set of specific ideas in mind. We program mainly solo repertoire and work with very strong soloists who are up-coming musicians and/or students in the area.”

The program he assumed married Mendelssohn and Wagner under the dubious rubric “Two Teutonic Titans.”

Teutonic as a synonym for Germanic became a charged epithet in post-Victorian England. The ancient Teutonic tribes actually comprised peoples who became Brits, as well as Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Icelanders, Germans, Austrians, Dutch, Afrikaners, Flemish, and others. Arguably, Wagner and Mendelssohn have not much more in common than modern-day representatives of those tribal successors. Certainly musically they were titanic in very different ways, and had they been present to witness this program, would have grated like Teutonic tectonic plates in a zone of fire.

Despite their differences in personality and Weltanschauungen, both the charming Mendelssohn and the intense and bombastic Wagner wrote beloved wedding marches, and both wrote some very Rhennish-sounding overtures. The similarities end there.

Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” (“Fingal’s Cave”) Overture was the watery opener, unmistakably by the composer of the Incidental Music to “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and similar with its play of distinctive characters. More Weberish than Wagnerlisches, the piece gave the Civic a chance to demonstrate fairy scherzi which, if not ethereal, were nevertheless speedy and quick. The broad unanimity of the plentiful strings and the unleashed horns and brass gave an old-fashioned quality to the play as excellently shaped by Fukumura, whose painterly sensibilities brought us entertainingly and safely back to our point of departure.

The 13-year-old violinist Ilana Zaks dispatched the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with surprisingly mature and outgoing mastery. A student of Donald Weilerstein for the past six years (almost half her life), she has all the requisites of technique, confidence and sensibility for a major career. She knew when to lead and when her part was accompanimental. With a large and unforced tone, she used vibrato as an expressive device rather than sugarcoating. Her harmonics were some of the best-tuned I have heard, her portato articulations brilliant, and she had a refreshing way of knowing when to borrow time and when to return it. She projected untreacly sweetness along with command. She was ready for her spotlight in the cadenza. It probably would have earned spontaneous applause had the second movement not been played attacca.

Wagner never wrote a tune with the unabashed warmth and unfreighted elegance of Mendelssohn’s in the Andante. In the Allegretto, Zaks, a Titania leading a gossamer band, was worthy of the Bard. Fukumura drew from the Civic a big warm sound which gave the soloist a fine supporting embrace.

For the Wagner set that followed, I restored to the Jordan Hall stage imaginary velvet drapery, which has been absent for many years, to veil the sound of the orchestra and allow for anticipation of a curtain rising on some bucolic 19th-century stagecraft. In “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhein Journey” from Götterdämerung, the big swelling strings and inerrant and powerful horns perfectly evoked ancient Teutonic Rites or a redemptive march to the Holy Land.

It was a pleasure to hear a suite from Meistersinger von Nürnberg and not have to confront the Beckmesser problem. How ironic that Wagner’s one putative comedy carries his most potent anti-Semitic baggage. Yet without the sniveling caricature, the music is quite digestible. Fukumura created a sumptuous sound world for this Wagner without Words, so as the music ended, my imaginary curtain rose on an imaginary chorus of the congregation supported by the pealing of the unfortunately mute Jordan Hall organ.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

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