Friday, April 22, 2011

Seasonal menu

The Boston Classical Orchestra at Faneuil Hall.
I'm not sure why I'd never caught a Boston Classical Orchestra concert, but I hadn't.  It was always in the back of my mind to  - but it wasn't until I heard conductor Stephen Lipsitt's sensitive account of The Emperor of Atlantis at Boston Lyric Opera this winter that I decided the time had come at last to pay that long-overdue visit.  The coincidental pairing in the program last weekend of one of my favorite sopranos, Dominique Labelle, and favorite vocal works, Barber's Knoxville: Summer 1915, probably sealed the deal.

Alas, I didn't get to hear Ms. Labelle - swollen vocal chords apparently prevented her from appearing.  Luckily, however, I still got to hear Knoxville, thanks to the efforts of Kendra Colton, who subbed for Labelle at the last minute.  Ms. Colton has an agile, silvery soprano, but perhaps not quite enough power to cut through the orchestra when it surrounds her (as it did here), and little of the summery radiance that should bathe the reminiscences of Knoxville (which boasts in James Agee's subtly-childlike text one of the most moving librettos of the modern era).  Colton's was a gently sombre, intellectual homecoming, while Lipsitt led the orchestra in a far more sensual one; perhaps as a result, the piece didn't quite come together as ravishingly as it should.

Still, I was grateful to hear it again, and was generally impressed with the playing in the rest of the program, as well as the unassuming insightfulness of Mr. Lipsitt's interpretations. The program behind the program was a seasonal one - the BCO opened with an excerpt from Haydn's Prelude to "Spring" from his oratorio The Seasons, then ran ahead in the calendar to Alexander Glazunov's "Spring" and "Summer" from his own The Seasons (this time a ballet rather than an oratorio), before basking in the late-August evenings of Knoxville. After the intermission, the program abandoned this conceit entirely to showcase a warhorse, Beethoven's Symphony No. 8.

Of the "seasonal" pieces, the Glazunov came off best; the Haydn was vigorously played, but slightly generic - and I don't think Lipsitt pulled off what he seemed to intend, that is a sense of impending bloom. Glazunov's "Spring" and "Summer," however, may be of little structural or intellectual interest, but are highly lyrical and just plain lovely, and the soaring "Summer" sparkles with brilliant percussive effects - all of which benefitted greatly from the concert's setting (Faneuil Hall, which is quite "bright" acoustically).  Lipsitt also drew appropriately dancing rhythms from his orchestra, along with a playful sense of rising, heady color; you could all but feel the summer wind by the finish.  You also probably felt both pieces - and maybe Glazunov in general - deserved to be heard more often in the repertory (it seems this constituted the work's local premiere!).

After intermission came Beethoven's Eighth, which in contrast has gotten a number of hearings of late in the Boston area.  Lipsitt offered no edgy new interpretation, but rather a rich and eloquent version - a kind of heightened statement, classicism at its grandest, sandwiched between the explorations and new visions of the Seventh and Ninth.  And the orchestra operated at the same high level here as it had in the Glazunov.  I left the concert with that sense I often feel at performances by capable, dedicated local groups - of touching base with a cultural tradition that can't help but renew the spirit.  And I found my respect for Mr. Lipsitt likewise renewed - perhaps even extended; and I don't think I was alone in that regard.  The orchestra opened the concert with an impromptu rendition of "Happy Birthday" in his honor, and he took to the clarinet himself at one point to toodle along with the winds in a bid to drum up a little financial love for the orchestra.  It's hard not to like somebody so clearly serious who doesn't take himself too seriously.  The BCO has just announced its coming season, a schedule which balances the popular with the occasional rarity (as this program did).  Local classical fans can read all about that seasonal menu here.

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