In an event-packed evening at Sanders Theater on Saturday, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston hosted the Dudamel Orchestra of the Conservatory Lab Charter School, former Music Director Gisèle Ben-Dor, and harmonica virtuoso Robert Bonfiglio. Oh yes, and they performed a colorful and imaginative assortment of mostly 20th-century music from diverse geographical sources.
The Dudamel Orchestra, under the leadership of Chris Schroeder, is the orchestral crucible of CLCS’s implementation of El Sistema, and contains students from the senior levels of the K-8 school. They integrated with PACO under Ben-Dor for three brief works to open the show: the Russian Sailor’s Dance from Reinhold Glière’s ballet The Red Pony; the Dance of the Tumblers from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden; and finally a Pops-ified arrangement of the Beatles’ I Saw Her Standing There. Making no concessions of tempo, the performances sounded bright, energetic and note-perfect. Frankly, we wished they had stuck around; at least one of the pieces on the principal part of the program could have benefited from the extra sonic heft they provided.
That principal part began with Stravinsky’s suite from Pulcinella, his first, almost offhand, foray into neo-classicism, prepared at the behest of Diaghilev. It is now widely recognized that most of the music on which this ballet was based was not by its putative composer, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, but that hardly matters. Stravinsky’s infinitely clever subversion of the harmonic underpinnings of the Baroque music marked a turning point in music history as potent—and maybe even more influential—than the roughshod brutalism of Rite of Spring six years earlier. Much of the music is now quite familiar.
On the plus side of the respectable but not exactly electrifying performance was the work of the winds and especially the brass—some superb horn passages in the upper registers in the Gavotte movement, for example, and some high-stepping good spirits in the preceding Toccata. The minus side had to do with soggy articulation by the strings, which could easily have been rectified had Ben-Dor wished it so. In presenting 20th-century neoclassicism it might even be useful to take some lessons form latter-day performance practice by the purveyors of early music; their crisp, bouncy renditions seem more in keeping with the overall tenor of this piece than the broader approach Ben-Dor took.
Another ballet suite, the early-ish (op. 8) Estancia by Alberto Ginastera, closed the first half. Commissioned in 1941 by Lincoln Kirstein, this was in effect the composer’s answer to the Copland cowboy ballets of the 1930s (“estancia” being the Argentine term used for the “big ranch”): both composers were essentially city-slickers with little first-hand experience of the rustic life their music depicted. Ginastera was fond of referring to his stylistic development as moving from “objective nationalism” through “subjective nationalism” to “internationalism.” This ballet is the paragon of that first period. The full ballet never made it off the ground, as the company for which it was written, the American Ballet Caravan, folded before it could be staged (it finally saw the light in 1952, and Ben-Dor led the first recording of the full score in 1999). As often happens in these circumstances, the composer salvaged what he could by making an orchestral suite, which contains four movements. To this Ben-Dor added one more from the full score, a twilight idyll that she performed in fourth place.
Ben Dor’s close association with the big, extroverted, bold and brassy piece with strong, crowd-pleasing folklórico elements allowed the orchestra to give a fully idiomatic, rousing reading; this nevertheless did not foreclose some delightfully gentle passages by flutist Melissa Mielens and concertmaster Barbara Englesberg in the “Danza del Trigo” (wheat dance) second movement, and by the fully shimmering strings in the Idyll.
This addition to the suite is well-judged and provides needed contrast to the slam-bam finale featuring the Malambo rhythm that is prefigured in the opening. As noted earlier, the performance might have been made even heftier with a bigger complement of strings, though the score’s complexity might have been too much for the youngsters in the Dudamel ensemble. By rights Estancia should have been the closer, but the logic of the trifurcated production precluded it.
What occupied the second half was Alexander Tcherepnin’s Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra, op. 86. Thanks to the pioneering work of Americans Larry Adler and John Sebastian (known as John Sebastian Sr. to distinguish him from his rock-star son, though the elder John was born John Sebastian Pugliese) and Briton Tommy Reilly, the harmonica attained respected status as a concert instrument. These three virtuosi called forth concerted works from eminent composers, a partial listing of whom includes Malcolm Arnold, Arthur Benjamin, Robert Russell Bennett, Jean Berger, Henry Cowell, Norman Dello Joio, Alan Hovhaness, Gordon Jacob, Darius Milhaud, Tcherepnin, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Heitor Villa-Lobos. Most of these were written in the 1940s and 1950s; the Tcherepnin concerto dates from 1953. Curiously, these three greats did not spawn a host of students to take up this repertoire, but one slightly younger performer, Cham-Ber Huang (1924-2014) set up a school in New York, which attracted the young Robert Bonfiglio (b. 1950), fresh from Milwaukee and Iowa City. Bonfiglio started, as most harmonica players probably do, playing blues on the 10-hole diatonic harmonica; as most harmonica players don’t, though, he took up a formal conservatory education at Mannes and Manhattan School of Music (with specialized training on the side with Huang). He is now probably the senior virtuoso on the circuit for his instrument, which for classical music means the fully chromatic harmonica.
Russian-born Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977), arrived in the second generation of what is now a four-generation family of composers. Having extricated himself from Russia after the 1917 revolution, his peripatetic life took him to Paris, China, and the US. He settled in Chicago in 1947 to teach at DePaul. His work—and the Harmonica Concerto is no exception—demonstrates exquisite craftsmanship and esthetic discrimination that is increasingly difficult to come by. The concerto was commissioned and premiered by Sebastian (in a concert conducted by Fabien Sevitzky, the son of Serge Koussevitzky). The only extant recording of it is by Sebastian with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, here. In four movements, of which the outer ones are the most substantial, it is full of charm and grace, with many Stravinskyan and Russian touches and turns of phrase; the slow movement, though relatively brief, is lyrical and near to folksiness, with a middle section that develops a quiet passion. Sebastian had explained that he regarded the harmonica as musically delicate, so that pieces he commissioned would not attempt massive, Romantic gestures—no Brahms Second Piano Concerto or Rachmaninoff Third, thank you. Tcherepnin kept his scoring mostly on the light side, but this certainly did not reflect any watering-down of musical content; the opening Allegro is a fully developed sonata movement. But quite a lot of the music is carried by the solo instrument, and Bonfiglio amply justified his sobriquet as the “Paganini of the harmonica” (with his long mane, we might have suggested Liszt) by procuring from that short piece of metal, with its small metal reeds, an extraordinary variety of color and expression, notably in a tender duet with the harp in the slow movement, and in the impish quicksilver brilliance of the bitonal scherzo. The finale worked in several themes that Tcherepnin subcontracted to his three sons, Serge, Peter and Ivan, the latter of whom was a mainstay of Harvard’s music department; the lyricism of his theme might surprise those familiar with his later avant-garde tendencies.
The concerto won rousing approval from the audience, but it was far from the end of the program. Bonfiglio drew upon his roots for three encores on three different harmonicas, including two tiny diatonic models that he used for blues numbers by Sonny Boy Williamson (which of the two of the same name we don’t know) and Junior Wells. It was even harder to credit the tonal variety to be squeezed from those tiny bricks.