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Thoroughly Professional

by B.A. Nilsson on March 23, 2011

Boston Symphony Orchestra Strings

Massry Center for the Arts, Picotte Recital Hall, March 21

Without some of the specific history attached to the concert, it still would have been a very pleasant program of music for strings, but much attention—in pre-show talk and program notes—was given to Pavel Haas’s Study for String Chamber Orchestra, a work written in 1943 while the composer was imprisoned at a German concentration camp. He was killed a month after the work’s premiere.

Reconstructed for its second performance in 1991, the single-movement, episodic piece show the influence of Janacék, Haas’s teacher, while structurally reaching further into the 20th century. Although characterized by abrupt changes of tempo, the piece has a thematic unity enhanced by deft contrapuntal writing. And it’s a very pleasant and dramatically effective piece. Without its history, it’s an accessible piece that captures the attention with its inventiveness. Knowing the circumstances under which it was written, the joy that is radiates is all the more poignant.

The program opened with a burst of familiar enthusiasm—Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, a brief, four-movement serenade some or all of which everybody should know, and the performance nevertheless offered some surprises. First and best, they didn’t fetishize the piece by lingering over moments that don’t respond to such attention. This was reinforced by the tempo of the second movement, which allowed it the energy it deserves. There was the unexpected elegance of the scherzo, an elegance sustained throughout the several contrasts the performance discovered. And the bright, brisk finale wrapped it all in delightful exuberance.

The players, drawn as they were from the ranks of a top-flight orchestra, had a lush uniformity of sound and the ability to sculpt attacks and decays with impressive simultaneity. The 15 players were a pyramid of sound: one double-bass, two cellos, three violas, four second violins and five firsts.

Along with helming the varied program skillfully, conductor Jamie Somerville was able to vamp for a few minutes before the beginning of the second half, accommodating the noisy entrance of stragglers with a short history of the lead-off piece, Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Not only was it a striking complement to the Haas piece, but it set the stage for the work that followed, the world premiere of David L. Post’s Fantasia on a Virtual Chorale.

Commissioned by the Terezin Music Foundation, which sponsored the reconstruction of Haas’s Study, Post’s piece is a busy, mercurial journey through a succession of melodic fragments that soon open into a sudden hymn inspired by the Czech “St. Wenceslas Chorale.” Post’s writing, like Haas’s, uses counterpoint and contrast, rather than traditional melodic development, while maintaining an effective dramatic progression.

The program closed with Tchaikovsky’s ultra-Romantic Serenade for Strings, a four-movement piece that reminds us that the composer needed no brass and percussion for his characteristic bombast, in the midst of all of which is one of the most charming scherzos he ever wrote.

I have to salute Albany’s aged classical-music audience for bringing us back to a time when concerts were noisy, social affairs, the hubbub of which remained untroubled by any performance taking place. Although this group wasn’t drinking beer and throwing peanut shells, they did admirable work with candy wrappers, not-so-sotto-voce comments and the inevitable staccato of grunts, coughs and throat-clearings. A group of (I assume they were) College of Saint Rose students shamefully made no attempt to emulate their elders, and sat through the concert in respectful silence.