For its first appearance in its 41st season, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, a unique cooperative chamber group of professional freelance musicians, offered three 19th-century works in the aptly titled “Jewels and Gems.” With Paul Polivnick conducting Saturday night in the highly-decorated sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in Newton Centre, there was much to appreciate.
In the crown jewel of the concert, which dazzled after the intermission, the Pro Arte and soloist Steven Copes delivered a lyrical, coherent and exciting rendition of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D Major (opus 61, 1806). The concertmaster of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Copes has performed Beethoven’s only violin concerto with them and others, and his sweet sound mesmerized the audience. This concerto, innovative as it is, from the first 5 Ds sounded by the tympani, is perhaps too often played and can seem hackneyed, even boring. Not so with this performance, which felt intimate yet declarative, revealing the revolutionary aspects that it contains—the very long introduction and the sense that the soloist is, in some sense, a commentator on the orchestral score and its many melodies. Copes, given his extensive chamber orchestra experience, interacted conversationally with the strings, sometimes playing along in the tutti, but contributing all the fire and verve required of the soloist. By the time he enters as soloist (at measure 89), four sonorous themes have already developed. The softly resonant second movement, did much with the innovative silences within the subtle variations. The striking and bejeweled architecture of the sanctuary allowed the sound to reverberate warmly, which worked very well in slow movements. Beethoven’s rollicking Rondo-Allegro, both conventional and exploratory, allowed both soloist and orchestra simultaneous playfulness and profundity. The cadenzas by violinist Robert Mann made a graceful addition to a delightful performance.
The other works served us well, starting with Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s sole orchestral piece, her Overture in C Major from 1831 (heard also in last week’s BSO concert, reviewed by Vance Koven HERE). Fanny, who, as most of us now know, was Felix’s older sister, collaborated closely with him. This concise overture offers a slow initial theme and then several enthusiastic bouts of melody, with Mendelssohnian orchestrations that lead me to wonder how much of Felix’s oeuvre might have been more than inspired by Fanny. But never mind. Polivnick inspired verve and mastery from the ensemble, though the echoic chancel created some blurring. The articulation and lines of the piece nevertheless came through with polish through Polivnick’s careful, charismatic technique.
The 19-year-old Schubert’s Symphony Number 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485 (1816) is replete with many familiar melodies and Mozartian form. The Pro Arte used a light touch in the opening pianissimo of the first movement’s Allegro, which is springlike and soaring, unlike the first four symphonies, which start with a slow introductory theme. Loving craft was evident in the Andante’s delectable modulations, and in the Menuetto’s chromaticism. The final, short Allegro vivace requires the violin section to negotiate gliding melody and harmonic development, which they amply did. Schubert himself noted this symphony’s debt to Mozart; the orchestra played the work with adherence to the composer’s intent.
The delightful performance was followed by a friendly repast in the adjoining church reception area, in which, many decades past, I was a Brownie. The audience drifted out into the freezing night filled with melodic memories and friendly post-concert greetings.