Had Harvard’s Sanders Theater, before this past Sunday, ever hosted music of the Venezuelan-American Teresa Carreño (1853-1917)? Conductor Emerita Gisèle Ben-Dor returned to lead Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston in three of her works along with a recent concerto by the contemporary Argentinian American J.P. Jofre that featured BSO violinist Lucia Lin. Interestingly, both Carreño and Jofre emigrated to New York City, Carreño meeting Louis Moreau Gottschalk who promoted her as an artist and Jofre finding jazz there to mix with tango. While Pro Arte’s strings shed light on Latino-Americans, the winds of the musician-run ensemble revived Beethoven’s Octet for Winds.
Pro Arte’s “Volcanic!” veered. Rather than being explosive or fiery, Carreño offered tenderness in Mi Teresita, a little waltz named after her daughter who would also become a pianist. Not only a pianist and composer, her mother also conducted and performed as a soprano—perhaps we can think explosive here? Carreño’s Serenade and a work depicting a Romantic era ball, steered us even further from anything stormy.
It appears Pro Arte marketing went with Jofre’s concerto title, Mauna Loa, one of five volcanoes that form the Island of Hawaii, but the 16-minute work hardly thundered and it sparked even less; soloist Lucia Lin did all she could to get a hold. Beethoven’s wind Octet having been cast between the two Latin-Americans would only raise more questions about the scheme for an unusual matinee (Pro Arte’s website blurbed, “a creative mix of classical and new music”).
Introducing the orchestra, Board Chair Genie Ware praised Ben-Dor as “a champion of South American music.” Her return to Pro Arte’s podium left no uncertainty, as her definitive gestures outlined in the air finely reshaping Carreño’s voice clicked with the highly responsive players. Completely new to me, I found the Venezuelan-American voice, under Ben-Dor’s venerable hands, a rewarding, veritable glimpse into the past. Perhaps more a history lesson? Wherever did Carreño’s name appear in those music appreciation college textbooks and music dictionaries so many of us grew up with?
Always clear-cut, Un Bal en Rêve (1869) first dreamt, then danced, piano-like arpeggios streaming from woodwinds as unclouded signals to begin dreaming or dancing. As Ben-Dor had alerted beforehand, the audience immediately recognized the opening notes of “Happy Birthday” popping up in the dance theme. Ben-Dor thought it “visionary.” Recall that the sister-team of Mildred and Patty Smith Hill published “their” song in 1933 eventually leading to lawsuits, the song not being theirs at all, but a folk song published 40 years earlier.
With a loveliness of tone hinting at reedy and a flair for the violin’s idiomatic ways of expression, Lucia Lin performed J.P. Jofry’s Mauna Loa (2021), which she co-commissioned.
A transparent methodology in Lin’s approach fastened our attention to Jofry’s concerto for violin and string orchestra, both soloist and composer displaying the instrument in various lights. The Argentinian-American’s work ultimately could not find its path to listeners. Where ever it traveled, it did so mostly with too little orchestra, leaving embers along the way.
A sense of composer estrangement fell upon Beethoven, his Octet in E-flat major, op. 103 (1792), sandwiched between the Latin-Americans, a fairly long intermission contributing little to any real possible reunion. Presented by paired winds of the Pro Arte, the octet seemed to call out for a conductor to tailor the phrasing to the high degree expected of these players, though moments of a collective understanding occasionally came through.
Carreño’s Serenade for Strings in E-flat Major (1895) opened remarkably with pizzicato and bowed strings leading to the Andante’s rich counter-lines. Pro Arte’s strings wowed with demanding scales at rapid-fire speed in the Allegro vivace. Principal cellist, Steven Laven spread luxuriant warmth in Recitativo with conductor Ben-Dor continuing in the Tempo di marcia to prompt an undistracted gaze upon a truly devoted leader.
After the concert, we encountered Gisèle Ben-Dor, offering her a “Brava!” She said, “I hope you enjoyed the piece.” “Oh yes!” Another Carreño, Pro Arte, and Ben-Dor program is in order!