Conductor Steven Lipsitt has a knack for alliteration, first made evident in 2016 when he revived the Boston Classical Orchestra founded by Harry Ellis Dickson at Faneuil Hall in 1980. He kept the orchestra going after Dickson’s death, but when financial issues threatened its continuing existence, he assembled a new board and rebuilt the ensemble under the name Bach, Beethoven, & Brahms Society. On the one hand, that name overtly indicates that the ensemble would offer the meat-and-potatoes of the classical repertory for listeners who come to the historical venue of Faneuil Hall, conveniently available by public transportation and boasting clean acoustics.
But the alliteration that marks the name of the ensemble reappeared this spring to highlight the interesting program on April 23rd. These refer to two of the four composers represented in the program and the fact that both works featured the harpsichord. The interesting program included works from the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and rather unusually, the two pieces calling for harpsichord, were both the earliest and the most recent.
George Walker’s Lyric for strings, originally composed as a movement for string quartet, and later expanded for string orchestra, is by far his best-known work. He dedicated it to the memory of his grandmother. The short, intense, poignant score, first descends, then rises, seeming to recall the changing intensities of the string sonorities as it both suggests past memories and anticipates.
The Haydn Concertino in C major (Hob. XIV:12), composed about 1772 as a chamber work for harpsichord with two violins and bass, was enlarged by Steven Lipsitt to make it more of a concerto with a full (but modest) orchestra. In both its original quartet form and its larger version, it gave the feeling of Hausmusik, music to be played at home for the entertainment of the players themselves, though of course the larger orchestra fitted it for a concert this a good-sized audience. Haydn wrote many works of every kind of shape, many of which included the feeling that they were intended to provide personal pleasure in music-making to members of a household privately among themselves. The harpsichord part, played by Tracy Richardson, suggested that Haydn might have planned it for the keyboard as the dominant participant and that the three string instruments might have been younger members of the family, enjoying offering a performance with their mother or teacher, linking the straightforward string parts against the lively and brilliant sections for the teacher and leader.
The other work for harpsichord and strings. Mark Hagerty’s As Yet… reworks the traditional play of soloist (amplified harpsichord) and the full ensemble, though not especially in the contrapuntal manner of traditional concertos. In a brief message to the audience, he explained that he conceived the music not so much in linear structure, with ongoing development of melodic themes, but rather as a kind of rhetoric, with the keyboard establishing primacy, its electric flashes, like lightning, are set against the dense, earthlike sounds of the massed stringed instruments through which the brilliant energy of the harpsichord shoots..A middle section allows the materials to suggest a passacaglia rotating through different keys in thoughtful alternation. The final section once again takes a livelier tempo tossing our various themes to produce what the composer called a “hyper-rondo.”
Hagerty studied at Oberlin and Brandeis. He has collaborated for years with Tracy Richardson, for whom he conceived the part for amplified harpsichord, along with many other works involving the harpsichord. The BB&B Society commissioned As Yet… with financial support from Vita Paladino.
The program closed very happily with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, a work of delightful energy and light that too rarely emerging from the giant shadows of the Third and the Fifth. The sustained introduction of the opening hints at dark possibilities ahead, but these are most dispersed in a few brief rising moments that set off the cheerful Allegro. Still, the first four pitches heard in the score—long-held notes that sound the same shape (a pair of descending thirds) but without the characteristic rhythm, as the opening of the Fifth Symphony, already creates a link between the two works. But from the explosion of the faster tempo, the two symphonies plow very different fields. By the end of the fourth movement, the quick-as-a-wink theme has brightened spirits thoroughly—until Beethoven’s final joke, when the musicians seem to be tiring as the end approaches. Sure enough, the figure slows, almost the point of passing out, when, convinced that the ending will be as slow as the beginning, the final phrases take off like a racehorse, bringing delighted smiles to the lips and hearty applause to the palms of the spectators.