The Boston Civic Symphony concert in Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon, under the direction of Steven Lipsitt, was one to remember, although it took a while to sink in.
The orchestra responded well to Lipsitt’s fluid gestures, especially in sections with quickly contrasting meters, and presented a gentle approach to dissonance; the balance of woodwind and string sections was one of the best I’ve heard in Jordan Hall, where the violins often swamp the winds and percussion. (Lipsitt is a candidate for the BCS directorship; he served as music director of Boston Classical Orchestra for 17 years and appeared last week in Sanders Theater as guest conductor / applicant with Masterworks Chorale.)
A diverse program of Weber, Ginastera, and Brahms delighted the audience, and Executive Director Michele Mortensen’s introduction provided context for the BCS’s second concert of the season. The highlight of the performance was a guest appearance by legendary retired (2009) BSO harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, soloist solo in Ginastera’s 1956 Harp Concerto. After 40 years with the BSO and at NEC, Pilot is now based in Sarasota Florida, where she continues to teach and perform. Her talent and flair were last in evidence in her playing of the John Williams concerto, On Willows and Birches, commissioned on her retirement and premiered then by the BSO, but Pilot has accomplished much more than presenting virtuosic solo work: at 23 she was the first African-American woman principal player in any orchestra.
For the Ginastera, Pilot’s playing demonstrated an amazing dynamic range, particularly in the third movement. This is a solo requiring great stamina. Her contrasting interpretation of delicate harmonics and fast, even 16th notes rang through Jordan Hall, creating an intimate space in spite of Ginastera’s occasional rough, muscular crescendos. The soloist wore a long red gown and was placed on a raised platform sharing the center of the stage, at equal height and position relative to the conductor.
Lipsitt added historical and contextual remarks on the afternoon’s program between the graceful opening (Berlioz’s Invitation to the Dance) and Ginastera’s virtuosic work. He noted that Pilot had played through it long ago for the composer himself, and had just come to Boston after performing it at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, where she met Ginastera’s daughter.
A clear, economical conductor, Lipsitt charmed with quick contrasts and shifts of orchestral color. Since longtime music director Max Hobart is retiring at the end of his 37th season, many of the Boston Civic Symphony’s programs will feature guest conductors who are working with the ensemble as part of the audition. (David Feltner’s turn is in March.)
The Boston Civic Symphony is a diverse ensemble with a deep bench. Standout soloists included Seth MacLeod, whose soaring cello framed Berlioz’s 1841 orchestration of Weber’s gentle 1819 Invocation to the Dance. Principal Flute Gregory Goldfarb and Principal Clarinet Kristian Baverstam led the woodwinds during the many short chorale-like orchestrations of the original piano score. It is a varied, vigorous waltz, emphasizing legato lines and lacking in rubato. Berlioz’s orchestration is string-heavy and tends to sound muddy in most acoustical venues, but it was an excellent choice for Jordan Hall, where even the chromatic flute melodies were clean and clearly discernible.
Principal Trumpet Liz Jewell and Principal Horn Kerry Thompson were featured in the first movement of the Ginastera: Jewell’s bright tone brought the call and response section to life, and Thompson’s warm, rich timbre provided a model for the well-coordinated ensemble and perfect intonation of the section. This movement is so slow and episodic that it’s easy to get lost, but Ginastera’s carefully chosen high harmonic clusters seemed at once dissonant and mystical. The violin section, led by Young Shin Choi, showed great restraint, providing a gorgeous backdrop to the harp solo in the second movement: a Molto moderato in ABCA form, framed by slow, dissonant counterpoint in the strings.
The percussion (Greg Savino, Davis Coleman, Leigh Wilson, Maxwell Herzlich, Principal Timpanist Richard Horn, and Christopher Brown on celesta) played with verve and a tenacious sense of rhythmic intensity, supporting and driving but not overpowering the larger ensemble. The woodwind quartet that Ginastera features (as soloists and as a unit) in the second movement was also balanced, blended, and rich in tone. Lipsitt highlighted the shifting 3/4 and 6/8 rhythms common to Latin American folk music, and he remarked that Ginastera “knew the guitar and brought that influence to the harp, mimicking the six strings of the guitar”. The final movement finally allows the harp soloist to take a long cadenza, exploring the lower notes and employing shifts of foot pedals in the middle of sustained chords. Pilot’s mastery of the work and her close collaboration in tempo and style with the band received a standing ovation, but the work was followed by intermission, not an encore.
Brahms’s Second Symphony, also inspired by a series of character dances, drifted off into waltzes and lullabies. The horns were the standouts again, especially in the broad solo of the expansive first movement, and Anna Bradford’s oboe solo in the third movement hearkened back to Weber / Berlioz’s gentle dance rhythms. This symphony shows Brahms at his most assured, with a lively finale that bubbled with excitement.