The Longwood Symphony Orchestra is no ordinary group of amateur players. Named after Boston’s Longwood Medical Area, the LSO comprises almost exclusively medical professionals. This orchestra most harmoniously reflects the long understood connection between science and music—both in individuals and larger communities. Now entering its 31th season, the ensemble draws from the classics of the symphonic and the 20th-century American canons and also features world-class soloists; this time it was Russian pianist Vasilly Primakov.
Before the music began Sunday at Jordan Hall, the new president of the LSO’s board, Thomas Sheldon, spoke about the ensemble’s extensive community outreach programs and thanked all in attendance for their continued support. In addition to providing performance and listening opportunities, this ensemble’s concerts raise money for the medically underserved in the Boston community; this year’s non-profit beneficiary was Shattuck Partners. Having already started a self-sustaining program that encourages and supports patients’ pursuits in visual arts, the organization plans on adding a for-hire chamber orchestra for patients.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 in E-flat Major (Drumroll) began the musical portion of the afternoon. One of his later symphonies written in England, this piece features typical elements of his energetic and often regal style. Within the first exposed, hushed utterances, though, the players lacked the effortless perfection of professional groups. However, by the time forte passages came around, the full orchestral sound filled the hall with pleasing force and tone, though the individual sections often fell short of true timbral unity. The LSO nevertheless captured the wit and subtle excitement in Haydn’s use of unequal phrase length, and capitalized on the dramatic off-beat accents in the build near the close of the fourth movement.
Watching these performers, who all clearly had high level musical training at some points in their lives, it occurred to me how much the genius performer is like a gifted athlete: able to execute the most difficult techniques with effortless fluidity, with grace. These players lacked a certain unity between physical and musical expression. Primakov illuminated this dichotomy later in the program: his fingers and arms fluidly telling the same story as the sounds.
The conductor, Ronald Feldman, lacked appearance of passion as well. Although he did a fine job teasing the detail out of the music, and cuing players when necessary, it felt, at times, that he aimed to make sure everyone stayed together, rather than sing the music himself through the tips of his fingers. He merely beat time for a lot of the concert rather than displaying a larger vocabulary of gestures—though kept the orchestra on course and in synch.
Irving Fine’s Diversions for Orchestra suited the ensemble very well. A number of local ensembles have been programming this Massachusetts born and educated in composer’s unique oeuvre of Neo-Classical music to mark what would have been his 100th year of life. Perhaps the group had eased into their performance by this point, or perhaps the Fine was easier to render, but they came into their own in delivering Fine’s ideas and moods with clarity. Surprisingly, this felt a bit less complex, or at had least slower rates of change than the Haydn. Featuring two movements lifted from incidental music from Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, and one, Kiko’s Lullaby, dedicated to his pet poodle, the work had a definite sense of humor, which the group conveyed in a very natural manner. There were comic moments of tuba, more chaotic passages of muted brass and contrasted some other deeply unsettled harmonies in the strings. Overall, this nine-minute work brought made for a delightful listen, featuring the same sort of “American charm” that Copland almost patented. It didn’t require as much poise as the Haydn, and the LSO rendered it admirably.
The second half of the program brought out Vassily Primakov for Chopin’s second piano concerto; he entered the stage with observable calm and an extra touch of youth (in fairness, he started Julliard at 17, and didn’t have to finish a residency before going professional). The orchestra began boldly and on point, with the intense introduction. While waiting during orchestral, the soloist’s body language was rather demure, hands folded politely in his lap, but once he began, he caused the energy of the audience to rise palpably.
Despite a relatively reserved demeanor, Primakov’s attitude and musical opinions showed boisterously through his fingers and arms. His technique was wildly colorful, and from row G his finger work was easily perceived, both directly and in the reflection of the glossy Steinway. Rotating, lifting when necessary to refresh the sound, his interpretation of Chopin’s phrases was genius. His soft and pure touch made the flowery ornamentation totally blissful.
Aside from the tremolo and pizzicato coloration in the second movement, and the special effect of col legno battuto (hitting the wood of the bow on the strings) in the third movement, Chopin’s orchestration was rather square. The LSO sounded impressive in this concerto, and their support let Primokov shine in the delicate sensitivity of Chopin’s piano writing.
Primakov alone warranted the almost immediate standing ovation, and gave a small delight of on encore: Chopin’s C-sharp Major Mazurka—an understated end to an afternoon that benefitted more than those fortunate enough to be in attendance.