Faneuil Hall glowed in full splendor on the beautiful spring afternoon of March 30th as street performers buzzed outside in full force and a Mark Wahlburg movie was shooting downtown. Inside the Great Hall, the BB&B was preparing for its aptly titled “The British are Coming!”
With heroic-scale portraits of America’s Sons of Liberty looking down, and as a lover of all things Britten, I placed myself expectantly with a substantial eager crowd. Conductor Steven Lipsitt approached the podium and greeted us disarmingly before eschewing the baton to moonlight as the piano soloist for the first piece, leaving the concertmaster and principal violinist to lead the ensemble’s lush string textured treatment of the well-known “Greensleeves” — AKA “What Child Is This.”
Regardless of how one knows the tune, its beauty is truly inescapable for anyone even remotely affiliated with western classical music. We heard the Vaughn Williams arrangement, melodic, if somewhat simplistic. With Lipsitt at the piano, and the full complement of strings in conversation, hall resonated with lush consonance, the “Fantasia on Greensleeves” warmed things very pleasantly.
Lipsitt’s affable, knowledgeable, and downright charming demeanor, both as a conductor, and as the emcee for the afternoon’s performance, struck the perfect balance between being informative, and delving into the program-note realm. He simply shared his love for this repertoire, and explained how the Serenade, deriving from the Italian “evening music,” catalyzed the concert.
Elgar’s three-movement Serenade takes a sonatina form. The first and last movements flow with a lyrical, while a cantabile movement occupies the middle. While he was well known for his work as a choral and chamber composer, this work, Lipsitt asserted, was Elgar’s first large-scale orchestral success.
The first movement, with its sweeping gestures in almost waltz fashion, featured singing violins atop a walking basso ostinato. The violas, in pizzicato, made kept the ensemble in time with Lipsitt’s clear, if somewhat restrained conducting. In the second movement, the lyricism of the violins in the low register achieved an almost operatic level of expression in the interplay with the violas. Interestingly, the strings seemed to be in conflict with themselves about whether the energetic directionality and intention of the movement was to seduce, pacify, or profess love. At the risk of positing programmatic possibilities, it seemed to me that this movement, with its longing and plaintive suspensions and passionate upper violin sweeps, could very easily be imagined as an overture to an opera I would love to see. Similar to the first movement, the third felt somewhat anticlimactic, with a lulling 6/8 lilting melody in the upper strings. Perhaps Elgar wanted to pacify listeners after the excitement what came before.
Benjamin Britten wrote his Temporal Variations for Oboe at only 23 years old. There has been some discussion on the titling. Can “temporal” refer to something secular, as opposed to sacred; or as related to time, and its passage? Lipsitt suggested that it might relate to the public observance of communal thoughts — considering Europe’s war-torn state at the time he wrote it.
BSO Oboist John Ferrillo made his first Boston appearance 40 years ago with this group and is a “preschool friend,” Lipsitt chortled, playfully, commenting on the passage of time, as he introduced the oboist for the Temporal Variations.
Beginning with ominous low strings in tremolo, the plaintive cry of the oboe articulated a lyrical prelude for what was to come. The oboe in alternating recitative and cadenza style, established an antiphonal call and response against the strings. Playful soloist texture against arpeggiated strings was the theme in the second movement. The strings, however, a little too excitable, covered the oboe in its low range; the bite of the melismatic strings overwhelmed the obviously capable soloist. Perhaps this is how Britten intended, with the soloist emerging from the texture only when the composer desired, almost painfully oscillating between the diatonic leading tone, and the tonic.
The next movement gave the oboe its first chance to sing into some melodic line as opposed to purely punctuating virtuosic delicacy. In this movement, which even though serious classical music, had a comedic, notably jazzy quality. It is quite interesting Britten’s intertwined nature of the soloist and ensemble, with the ensemble playing both at once an accompanimental role, as well as a collective soloist role. The strings felt a little disjunct here, not striking appoggiatura simultaneously, but they recovered quickly thereafter. The soloist returned to the sustained two-note motive, with the strings in much more explosive and shimmering fortepianos, expanding into a final ultimate crescendo, completing the work.
During the intermission, I sat with electric excitement over the chance to hear live, one of my favorites, counting the seconds for the pause to conclude. Conversations continued in the audience as voices rose to compete with the tuning. This family affair possessed a certain relaxed charm.
French hornist Rachel Childers became the first female brass player at the BSO 11 years ago, and tenor Matthew DiBattista worked with Lipsitt as a high school student years ago, both having soloed with Lipsitt and his ensemble; this made for a collective homecoming, as Britten’s virtuosic and seminal work for tenor, horn, and strings backdropped a celebratory reunion.
The natural horn makes extreme demands on most players, and Britten did not quite grasp the complexity of beast even though he wanted its timbres. Childers used the valvless horn to great effect in the prologue and the epilogue. The second iteration of similar music (epilogue) worked with more success. I cannot wait to follow her journey from capable to stellar, as she grows to navigate Britten’s virtuosic demands seamlessly.
The “Serenade” (op. 31), a multi-movement work, sets poems by many composers spanning from antiquity to Britten’s contemporaries. Each movement presents different challenges and opportunities for the soloists and the ensemble alike, for color variation, and expressive gestures. The vocal lines, written for Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, range from diminutive to bombastic, and everywhere in between, almost touching 3 octaves of vocal range. DiBattista has apparently performed many of the works of Britten, but perhaps through the pandemic, his voice underwent a maturing process, and the voice now has a rather baritonal quality, as opposed to the sonic and vocal flexibility required for this piece and many of the Britten works for the singular voice of his partner Peter Pears. He could not decide whether to sing in full modal voice, or in a falsetto; the latter became a bit shaky in his interpretation of the (Lyke Wake) “Dirge.” On the other hand, his take on “Hymn,” a playful and charming duet with the horn, and “Sonnet” particularly moved us, with the voice finding its path in rich lyricism for the final movements.
While some wrong notes, wrong rhythms, and inconsistencies in tuning from both soloists and the ensemble marred this outing, the standing ovation and roaring accolades signified that perhaps I am too close to this Serenade, and that I set expectations too high.
Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite provided a tonal palate cleanser after the angularity and musical complexity of the two Brittens. The ensemble achieved cohesiveness this time. I can’t believe I’m saying this with Britten’s Serenade on the program, but BB&B saved its best for last.
The first movement felt lusty, thick textured, folk dancy. One could not help but imagine sitting around a table in a dimly lit tavern with grog being slung from behind an old wooden bar. Perhaps the whole community coming together on a Sunday afternoon to make engaging and entertaining music, the parents of children laughing as they get dizzy from spinning, falling on the dark oaken floor. With tight rhythmic sense, and playful energy, the ensemble embodied the concept of community engagement, and true musical collaboration.
The second movement took on drawing room elegance, with theviolins twirling and spinning in a waltz, whose passion and eagerness to break down the walls of refinement hides just beneath the surface, only occasionally giving us glimpses of the potential for raucousness.
The third movement had the orchestra in pizzicato, accompanimental configuration while concertmaster again soloistically plays a quasi-Slavic, plangent, Bartokian melody, accompanied by principal viola in beautiful duet. The entire ensemble eventually reclaimed the theme in beautiful harmonic unison.
Finally, returning to the pastoral feeling, the fourth movement surprisingly returned to the “Greensleeves” theme, carefully and beautifully obscured in the string texture, and it cleverly bookended this enjoyable, and expertly programmed concert.