Freisinger Chamber Orchestra’s Sunday concert at Old South Church’s handsomely cavernousness sanctuary had problems to overcome. Right from the start there was a rival disco extravaganza in Copley Square serving as a sonic goal for Jimmy Fund Walk participants and a major irritant to the audience within. The amplified thrumming bass was often louder than the well-tempered playing of the young 22-piece pickup orchestra. Indeed, the small numbers created a real bass deficiency: two celli and one doublebass were hardly sumptuous for a 1200-seat space. Also, tuning and perception thereof suffer when there are only two strings to a part, as in the viola section. The upper strings, 5, 4, had sheen until fatigue set it late in the program. Finally, there seemed not enough rehearsal time for the repertoire. When I asked conductor/producer Peter Freisinger why he had inserted three arias into the program and accompanied them on piano instead of with the orchestra, he said, “With only three rehearsals of three hours, each with a 20-minute pizza break, there just wasn’t enough time to work out everything, and I really wanted to present mezzo Grace Allendorf—plus I love to play the piano.”
The program was a pleasant, old-fashioned miscellany that began with Tchaikovsky’s beloved Variations on a Rococo Theme. Cello soloist Edevaldo Mulla, Albanian with Boston connections, was a Byronesque (more on Byron later) extrovert who conquered the virtuosic demands yet never lost touch with songfulness and romance. He gave us brilliant scales, sweeping arpeggios, well-tuned harmonics, scampering passagework, and never failed to produce a honeyed and emotive tone. He and the orchestra also managed to maintain concentration and shape—something of a miracle when they could hardly have heard each other over the disco thrumming, especially below forte. The most soulful effusions, though, were severely mauled by the distractions without. The orchestra was alert to all of the coloristic effects and the larger changes in mood and tempo, but shifts did not always engage smoothly. The winds had a fine outing, and hornists Joe Walker and Derek Lewis along with flutist Elzbieta Brandys made much of their solos. The strings did not make a strong impact.
The audience demanded an encore and received a repeat of variation 7.
The most successful piece on the program followed. Composed last spring to a commission from the orchestra, Jacov Jakoulov’s The Horizon, a 12-minute tone poem inspired by lines from Byron’s Don Juan, received its world premiere. Its success was probably in large part due to its unfamiliarity and our lowered expectations. Not melodic, the work depends on subtle and difficult coloristic effects to reflect the moods of the poem. And those effects included paired bassoons executing closely spaced microtone scales, along with strings playing on their frogs with the wood of the bow. The opening sounded like anxious tuning until mournful fragments arrived from the woodwinds, giving way to expletive comments from other sections before slithering slides yielded to some amorphous monotony. Messiaenic birdcall evolved as the bubbles and foam of Byron’s fateful waves became fierce and horrific squalls. An extended unison morphed into howls and shrieks before subsiding into silence. Upon reflection, this short composition transcended its science fiction movie qualities, becoming something metaphysical and haunting. The text:
Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
‘Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be! The eternal surge
Of time and tide rolls on, and bears afar
Our bubbles; as the old burst, new emerge,
Lash’d from the foam of ages; while the graves
Of empires heave but like some passing waves.
The Orchestra joined the audience in the pews as Peter Freisinger accompanied mezzo Grace Allendorf in three French arias from the piano. Her creamy timbre, evenness of color and coloratura agility were well-matched to “Nobles Seigneurs” from Meyerbeer’s Les Heuguenots and Chabrier’s “Romance de l’étoile” from L’étoile, but she lacked the drama and voluptuousness to convey Delila’s romance and menace in “Mon Coeur s’ouvre” from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila. Freisinger’s accompaniments were both attentive and improvisatory. Most imaginative was how he conjured Saint-Saëns’s rippling string scales, which are not in the standard piano vocal scores.
The strains of competing with disco were getting the better of players and audience alike by the time the closer, Mozart’s Symphony no. 40, began. It takes hubris in any case to present this piece with a small, under-rehearsed orchestra. If only loyalty and enthusiasm compensated for maturity and subtlety and skill. Despite pleasant moments, it was mainly rushed, little-inflected, and at times, especially in the finale Allegro assai, the tuning in the strings was substandard. The Andante particularly lacked warmth, repose, and courtliness.
We joined the applause nevertheless, and all appreciate the generosity and humility of Peter Freisinger, who year after year gives so generously to his players and to the public. May he be better-favored in his venue next year, and may he be able to add considerable rehearsal time.