Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston’s concert last night at First Church Cambridge was perspectival in the best Nietzschean sense of the term, focusing in on elements of special relevance to American identity and experience. Respighi was denounced as a bombastic pastichist, Mozart was honored as the songster of human fragility, and Beethoven was embraced as the voice of the Brave.
The program opened with Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3, the most sober and somber of the suites, composed in 1931. Conductor Kevin Rhodes suggested that we think of it as being like a 50’s Hollywood period drama, evoking Bette Davis playing Queen Elizabeth. He emphasized that Respighi did not try to make them sound like Renaissance lute pieces, but rather that this was a look back from the 20th century. The playing was indeed lush and atmospheric from the opening Andantino to the melodramatic Passacaglia, suggesting that Respighi, like Hollywood film makers, aimed at entertaining the masses and drowning their misery in illusions of past glory. In short, Rhodes made us hear the Respighi that Mussolini loved rather than the subtle and nuanced Respighi that I prefer.
Closing the first half of the program was Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622, with Pro Arte’s own Ian Greitzer as soloist. The emphasis in this performance was on the operatic qualities of the piece. Seizing on the fact that this was Mozart’s last instrumental composition, written during his “dark” period, Pro Arte brought out the plaintive qualities of the Allegro, although the promised complexity failed to materialize. The tempi were rather slow throughout so that the work felt ponderous. The third movement was the most successful, conveying a touching sense of human wistfulness, from both soloist and orchestra.
The highlight of the concert was the second half, with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F. Pro Arte played the Allegro vivace first movement with rambunctious energy mixed with angst. Thanks to an exceptionally rapid tempo throughout, the music felt improvised, pouring out uncontrollably, fueled by disorder and genius. The Allegretto scherzando had a menacing feeling, the winds pulsing, and the strings answering with humor that mushroomed into bold irreverence. The Tempo di menuetto was played subversively, without mannerisms, and even some raucous improvisation in the horns. The wonderful Allegro vivace finale, with its strange modified sonata form, conveyed resilience and irrepressible self-belief. Pro Arte, in short, made the 8th a symphony for the New World, visceral and true.