Every September conductor-pianist-educator Peter Freisinger recruits an international cast of DMAs, graduate students, and experienced professionals from all over the world—Korea, Russia, China, Brazil, Japan, Canada, and Israel, and Massachusetts. At Old South Church Saturday afternoon, Freisinger provisioned his 12th Freisinger Chamber Orchestra season opener with his accustomed mix of periods and styles, and larded it with a virtual Met Opera intermission feature which found Freisinger at the Steinway with a contralto and a soprano. Only Milton Cross went missing.
Freisinger genially presided over his namesake contingent and the enthusiastic crowd, giving the usual pre-play exhortations for contributions and predictions that we would love every piece that he had prepared. These annual shows strongly represent his commitment to the process of molding 30 or so individuals into a viable force. The ad hoc yet cooperative nature of the proceedings found the piano soloist doing a stint on bass drum and as a cymbalist poet.
The Freischützen (Free shooters) reference comes from my reaction to the overture to the Thieving Magpie (Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra). The snare drum beat something of a marksman’s military tattoo for the rest of the forces to follow in a comic march. In the subsequent waltzing procession, including the requisite Rossini crescendos, the 15 brass and winds overpowered the 15 strings, and the single contrabass built an inadequate foundation in the composer’s rapidly shifting sands. Lively, yes, but a bit predictable and too quick to crescendo. The 30 players, bass resonance excepted, produced a satisfying large sound in the sanctuary.
Lutoslawski’s Little Suite came to us in its original chamber-orchestra version after departure of seemingly half the players; it was no chamber of modernist horrors, rather a delightful romp full of well-realized contrasts of texture, color, meter and affect. In the first movement (Fife), Oregon piccoloist Chase McClung maintained soldierly bearing, leading the heavily accented downbowing strings and brass on lively maneuvers. Buckeye Mary O’Keefe’s plangent if restless oboe then stated the tune of the Polish dance, which became general but with semicolon-like interrupting rolls from the un-snared drum (again by Casey Voss, Michigan). On clarinet, Curt Miller (Cal.) got the last luscious word. Little Song, the third movement, unfolded as a somber, reflective concerto for orchestra, with many attractive solo riffs. The closing movement, Dance from Rzeszów, full of color and character, gives impressions of Petrouschka or maybe Till Eulenspiegel … but this clown lives. The FCO gave its best representation in this delectable Little Suite
From Poland, our guides transported us back to Italy, for more Rossini, as soprano Jenna Rae Lorusso, with somewhat arch rising inflections, sold us “Una voce poco fa” from the Barber of Seville. But when she put down the interlocutor’s mike and began to sing, we experienced a joyful gleam of seamlessly seductive tone, which Lorusso employed to pleasing comic and musical effects. Ornamentation felt organic; Freisinger wisely remained in the background at the closed piano.
Roselin Osser took up the mike to introduce the much less known “Ah, Quel Giorno” from Semiramide. She narrated in straightforward, less manic, more conversational manner. For some reason, she sang from the floor instead of two steps up. Her contralto did not reach us as directly as Lorusso’s had. Yet she fully realized her character’s shenanigans with artful phrasing and dulcet warmth.
Lorusso returned to the stage to join Osser in the duet “Alle più care immagini,” again from Semiramide. While words did not come across, joy reared up aplenty. Freisinger came out of the shadows in this accompaniment with some expert, almost clean fun. But why, other than giving himself a chance to show off his keyboard talents, did he choose not to employ the orchestra for these three arias?
Musicologists do not cite Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as an example of brilliant orchestration. When a pro-tempore assortment of talented players attempts to traverse it, mud can muck-up the journey. Maybe that’s why we heard a straight-ahead read with few detours into ravishing byways. And maybe Japanese piano soloist Jun Toguchi felt the need for maximum momentum and velocity to keep the concerto afloat. He also may have experienced some degree of frustration with the poorly voiced and badly tuned Steinway grand shoehorned into the crossing aisle.
Back in Poland, the orchestra gave an adequate if gritty account, with some emergency portamenti in the introduction. Toguchi entered with lively confidence, fully up to any technical demands. One can only heap praise on his pearly scales and arpeggios. The Romanze – Larghetto second movement never inhaled deeply or sighed, however, and Freisinger did not always hold back the orchestra enough to avoid covering the already buried piano. Little mutuality of listening or chamber-music interplay seemed evident. During the bravura but ragged Rondo-Vivace finale, in which Freisinger almost needed to restart, Toguchi, the Freischütz, aimed every note of his runs with precision, and got through the concerto with hardly a misfire.
He encored with Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 27, No. 1, again emphasizing structure over nuance, propelling the work, with its many theme repetitions, forward to a sound conclusion. But that hardly prepared us for his virtuosic, machinegunning take on a jazzy, improvised toccata-like pleaser from the pianist-composer (and jazz maven) Friedrich Gulda. What a hoot, that piece, and this rendition.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer
BMInt’s Jim McDonald adds: