Midway through its 40th anniversary season, Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston dipped into its past and into the collective memory of what we used to call Western Culture. In its new venue, First Baptist Church in Newton Centre, a lovely Richardsonesque building whose wood-slatted ceiling disperses sound better than most such structures, Conductor Emerita Gisèle Ben-Dor, led Sunday afternoon’s charmingly varied program, cunningly offering a wind piece followed by a string piece, to give all sections equal stage time.
It began with a piece beloved by wind players but not that much heard by the general public, Charles Gounod’s 1885 Petite Symphony in B-flat Major, op. 216. This nonet for winds—it’s a double wind quintet minus one flute—was commissioned for the Chamber Music Society for Wind Instruments (its name in French is even more cumbersome) by its founder, eminent flutist and respected composer Paul Taffanel. It came near the end of Gounod’s long career (though PACO’s program book made nothing of it, this year is Gounod’s bicentenary), when he was rediscovering abstract instrumental music after many years of largely vocal and stage production (twelve operas of which the most famous, of course, was Faust, plus scores of cantatas, motets, incidental music and songs). It exhibits oodles of charm, a sometimes Mozartian refinement (including a daring riff on the Jupiter Symphony in the finale), and that ineffable way French composers have with wind writing that gets each instrument in its sweet spot. However, unlike a lot of French and French-inspired wind writing, Gounod chose to create a richly blended sonority, which PACO’s complement—Ann Bobo, flute; Nancy Dimock and Jennifer Slowick, oboes; Kai-Yun Lu and Margo McGowen, clarinets; Robert Marlatt and Frederick Aldrich, horns; and Ronald Haroutunian and Stephanie Busby, bassoons—burnished with tonal warmth and superior articulation. The slow movement features several solos for the flute—thanks for the commission, Taffanel—to which Bobo brought a honeyed sonorousness. Ben-Dor achieved brilliant cohesiveness of ensemble, but her tempi were fairly relaxed (OK, the fasted tempo indication is allegro moderato, with the outer movements marked allegretto); several recorded performances have stepped livelier, and upping the pace would not have hurt.
The first half closed with the return of another PACO alumnus, former principal trumpet Jeffrey Work, now principal of the Oregon Symphony, to reprise something he and PACO commissioned and premiered 20 years ago, Eric Ewazen’s Concerto for Trumpet and Strings. The music of the concerto antedates this form, having been adapted at Work’s suggestion from a quintet for trumpet and string quartet. Ewazen (pronounced with a long a, by the way) is, as the late Stephen Paulus was, an immensely popular contemporary composer whose music is seldom heard in our region owing, we surmise, to its, well, popularity. Ewazen is not just a neo-tonalist, he’s an out-and-out neo-Romantic, and the concerto sets a mostly chipper tunefulness against (and here’s where Work’s scoring insight was spot on) a creamy and gently dissonant, intervallically spacious accompaniment both impressionistic and modal, like Vaughan Williams meets Roy Harris. Oh yes, and occasional hints of late Bartók. Work was both mellifluous and crisp, with a well-controlled and expressive vibrato and a seemingly effortless legato. The fleet-footed mostly 6/8 scherzo was like a jig danced in running shoes rather than clogs; the elegiac slow movement was the Romantic soul of the piece, and Ben-Dor allowed the strings their full measure of spotlight time. The more jagged and jazzy finale lent edge to the otherwise equable proceedings.
So, when was the last time you heard the 210-year-old Beethoven’s Fifth live? This symphony is to music what the Mona Lisa is to painting, and the former’s motto motif is like the curl of the latter’s smile, though considerably less enigmatic. And one of the great things about everybody’s “knowing” B5 yet not often hearing it is that when you do, the wallop it packs takes effect as it should.
Nevertheless, a conductor and orchestra essaying this touchstone of Western art need to proceed with circumspection: details matter. In their reading, PACO and Ben-Dor got a lot of things right, starting with the first note. There is no accent on that note in the score, yet it’s amazing how many performances pretend there is. It’s the rest before the note that gets the “accent,” and Ben-Dor made sure it did. Ben-Dor also lavished attention on the slow movement, achieving remarkable unity of bowing and a refulgent tone (in contrast, the lower strings in the trio of the scherzo were not only gruff, but a little rough). Our biggest reservation in this otherwise highly commendable performance concerns tempi, which in the first and third movements were slack: the opening allegro could definitely have used more brio. In the finale, though, things were plainly on track, which suggests that Ben-Dor deliberately held back earlier to augment contrast. Our thinking is more along the lines of “trust Beethoven.” But quibbles should not be how this essay ends. The musicians of PACO did themselves proud: the strings, to the extent permitted, put their shoulders into generating superb tension and energy, while Ben-Dor carefully calibrated dynamic contrasts and balances. The winds, every man and woman jack of them, sang out with purity and clarity (special call-outs to Bobo and Lu); and the brass, especially the horns, ditto.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.