Boston Civic Symphony might be forgiven if it looked like they were trying to get the jump on the other Boston Symphony on Sunday. They presented an All-Beethoven concert at Jordan Hall, getting in ahead of the BSO’s All-Beethoven concerts that begin Thursday. The Civic Symphony, now in its eighty-ninth year, fills a different niche, though; in part a training orchestra, it can afford to be a little more experimental in its programming. The afternoon’s program included the “Turkish March” and overture to The Ruins of Athens, works that the BSO hasn’t played since 1928 and 1884 respectively. In addition, while the BSO is filled with top-notch players, they do not often get the chance to shine on their own. The Civic Symphony presented the Triple Concerto with three local musicians who have been playing for over a decade, two of whom are BSO players: violinist Lucia Lin and cellist Owen Young who, joined by pianist Sergey Schepkin, make up the Trio Amici.
The overture to The Ruins of Athens is a characteristic piece of middle-period Beethoven that doesn’t linger long in memory. It may have been scaled down on purpose. One can imagine that the experience of hearing the Egmont overture might have overshadowed the play that followed had it not been written by Goethe. August Friedrich von Kotzebuhe’s play still had the benefit of Beethoven’s rousing music, but the melodies don’t stamp themselves in memory. The “Turkish March” is more indelible. The melody was repurposed as part of The Ruin of Athens’ incidental music, having been first written as a subject for a set of variations (Op. 76). More often encountered in pops concerts or student recitals, it served as an amuse bouche to open the concert. Guest conductor Taichi Fukumura led the march and the overture – the march was meticulously shaped, and the upward flourishes in the melody developed a pleasingly raucous timbre as the march grew louder. The overture featured fine wind playing, especially from oboist Timothy Feil, whose solos led the orchestra through the transition from darkness to light.
Music Director Max Hobart took the stage for the remainder of the afternoon, first to lead the Eighth Symphony and then the Triple Concerto. The symphony was a rambunctious affair, featuring an explosive and mercurial first movement and a third movement of well-executed and colorful contrast. In the outer movements Hobart let the tympani “off the leash”, and fortes were quite powerful indeed. At times the ensemble’s enthusiasm got the better of them, and the silences (both fleeting and dramatic) that support the structure of the piece were blurred. High-spirited and extroverted, the performance was also a little ramshackle.
It was a much tighter ship for the Triple Concerto, where Hobart and the orchestra made the most of their tuttis, the strings in particular finding a more focused and weighty sound. Lin and Young initially projected distinct and somewhat conflicting personalities: the violin was strong and serious, the cello more discursive, a little riskier. There was a palpable sense of emotional struggle on stage, evolving as Lin and Young responded to one another and reaching a kind of resolution by the recapitulation. The movement had theatricality without flamboyance. Young threw himself into the romanticism of the second movement, which is carried almost entirely by the cello; enough so to produce moments of wobbly pitch. The polacca third movement started fitfully, but once it got on its feet it danced admirably, with grace and stylish restraint. Beethoven gives the pianist relatively little to do, presumably because the young Archduke for whom the part was written was no virtuoso, but Schepkin made the most of the moments he was given, producing a sound that bloomed in the space without disrupting the texture established by the his trio partners, and combining with Hobart and the orchestra to provide sensitive and flexible accompaniment.
Throughout the concert the orchestra was seated with split violins, with the violas to the left, next to the firsts, and the cellos behind the seconds. The practical effect was not great; with eyes closed, one could occasionally hear something antiphonal, but only with concentration. The symphony might even have suffered a little—there were ensemble issues in exposed staccato figures that perhaps one can blame on the violins being separated. The return of the melody in the low strings in the recapitulation of the first movement is always a tricky spot, which was nearly inaudible; perhaps one could blame the position of the cellos?