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Grecian Formula Gins Up Historic Church

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The ingratiating Peter Freisinger once again opened the Boston concert season with a pleasing, mostly NEC student chamber orchestra, which, due to the conductor’s multi-year absence, including work as a repetiteur in Germany, “recruited itself” for Saturday afternoon’s concert at Old South Church. No union rules requiring doubling fees obtained during this event, thus with gushing enthusiasm, Freisinger could thank two brass players for taking on timpani, triangle, cymbals parts …and presumably, harp, and celesta too (though we didn’t hear them) on a sampling keyboard in Ravel’s colorfully orchestrated Mother Goose Suite.

Not that gushing was entirely unwarranted considering the level of play from the 30 or so members of the room-filling chamber contingent. But how many times did we need to suffer Freisinger’s cheerleading? Of the soprano he pondered, “Isn’t she great? She learned [this rep] in two weeks just for us and she was very easy to work with…. Didn’t the orchestra sound great??? (about five times)….Pardon me while I adjust the camera—conductors have big egos….” Better would have been to trust us make up our own minds. And then forcing us to dodge donation baskets while exiting (“You don’t have to contribute.”) after having sold (most of) us tickets?

Freisinger programmed within a somewhat stretched Grecian theme, beginning with Nikos Skalkottas’s Five Greek Dances for Strings, in which the composer elicited lively and well-contrasted takes on Epirotikos, Kretikos, Tsamikos, Arkadikos, and Kleftikos. Skalkottas’s language, tonality with pungent wrong notes, and twinges of more advanced atonality, sometimes evoked Bartok’s arrangements of folk tunes and at other times conjured up Manos Hadjidakis’s “Never on Sunday” or the Éntekhno (orchestral music with elements from Greek folk rhythm and melody) of Theodarkis and others of that school. While there were some calm and reserved sections, and much rich tunefulness from the violas, the prevailing mood of lively head bobbing crossed the chancel to the nave quite infectiously. “Didn’t they sound great?”

The orchestra shared a quite-enjoyable take on Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G Major (Hoboken I/88) from 1787. One of the most popular of his unnamed examples, it brought the brass and winds onstage; Haydn gave them much to do, indeed we hear brass and (electrically synthesized timpani) even in the stately and emotional Largo. The Menuetto Allegretto, despite the ersatz drums, developed a nobility and the trio section gave the bassoon and lower strings an opportunity for a welcome color change. The winningly witty Finale: Allegro con spirito spread as much good cheer as the wine harvest fuguing dance from the master’s much earlier Seasons.

Freisinger seems always to give his orchestra (and the audience) a change of pace in which we hear him accompany a singer from the piano. This time he invited dramatic soprano Jessica Jacobs, the recipient of ten reviews on these pages (between 2013 and 2019) and now the proprietor of the useful new Somerville Music Spaces. After providing brief synopses, probably longer than the actual mélodies, she intoned Là-bas, vers l’église and Tout gai! from Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques. Freisinger supported with alertness, but I wish I could report that Jacobs brought chantuesian character to these little gems. Then the pair boldly journeyed to Chrysothemis’s Aria from Strauss’s Elektra. Jacobs explained with bright rising cadences that Chrysothemis does not wish to go on living a half-death in her own house: “she wants to leave, marry, and raise children.” “Ich kann nicht sitzen und ins Dunkel starren.” (I cannot sit and stare into the darkness.) “Ich hab’s wie Feuer in der Brust…I have fire in my breast).” Jacobs soared above the piano too easily, albeit with fluttery vibrato. She needed better protection from overexposure than the approximations of orchestral power and color coming from the closed piano. Why didn’t Freisinger bring the band back for this number?

One imagined that a good bit of the three rehearsal sessions went into the fully realized interpretation of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. The Freisinger contingent, although devoid of certain instrumental articles, nevertheless adventured far  beyond the original two-piano version. Freisinger’s broad, emphatic, usually symmetrical, reflexive gestures drew forth vivid colorations from all  in “Pavane of Sleeping Beauty. We particularly relished  the singing English horn of Donovan Bown over string musings in No. 2 “Little Tom Thumb.” “Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas” came to us as if in a serpentine and sexy embrace; Amelia Libbey’s gorgeous burbling flute evoked Debussy’s Bilitis crowd perhaps more than Mother Goose. The contra bassoon of Julien Rollins provided the requisite beastly menace to the contrasting beauty of Dillon Acey’s clarinet in No. 4. For “Fairy Garden” Freisinger summoned a broad tone with nice taffy pulling…and after a fine solo from concertmaster Arie Yaacobi,  the afternoon closed compellingly, but not until after a welcome reprise of the finale from Haydn 88.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

Perter Fresinger leads namesake orchestra (Simon Yue image)

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