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Concert review

Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra illuminates a gray Sunday with lively, thoughtful program

Mon Jun 10, 2024 at 11:05 am

By Maya Shwayder

Adrian Slywotzky conducted the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra Sunday in Newton.

In a city like Boston, chock full of some of the big-name music ensembles playing in large, storied halls, one can wonder how a small group like the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra carves out a niche for itself. 

“Strings of Light” — the group’s Sunday afternoon program which closed out an impressive 46th season — made a strong case for more intimate musical gatherings. From the proximity of the musicians, to the inviting warmth of the Second Church venue, to the illuminating insights that guest conductor Adrian Slywotzky and ensemble cellist-cum-arranger Leo Eguchi gave the audience before and during the concert, the orchestra made the event more interactive, personal, and engaging than a big ensemble would have. 

It helped that the music they chose was also fascinating in the best way possible.

The program kicked off with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Strings No. 2, a full-orchestra concerto that’s shot through with the composer’s traditional sunny, energetic violins. Slywotzky conducted with enthusiasm, energy, and fluidity that was met with some squareness by the orchestra. Eventually they warmed up; the violins leaned into Vivaldi’s signature dramatic descending chord progressions, sounding unified and brilliant. Overall the piece was a nice light introduction to the program.

Next came the afternoon’s barnburner, Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ Cello Concerto No. 2, Klātbūtne (Presence), a trembling and thoughtful work written in 2012 that explores hope and sorrow. The orchestra performed just the final Adagio.

The closest analog to the Vasks piece might be Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, another tense and tender work that winds itself up into a satisfying catharsis and plays with the effects of silence. But perhaps the best part of the music was that Vasks lets the cello be a cello. Vasks has the cello sit squarely within its comfort zone of resonant low notes and delicate harmonics, and the results are moving — the cello and the whole piece shine together.

Pro Arte principal cello Steven Laven was solid in hitting the right notes at the right time, though one would have liked a better shaping of the music. Ultimately, this allowed the orchestra to shine and blend with Laven, coalescing the fabric of the sound as the thick deep chords wound their way around each other.

After intermission came Reena Esmail’s Teen Murti, named after the residence of India’s first prime minister. Specifically, the piece is meant to evoke three statues that stand in front of this New Delhi building, which it does, using three separate musical ideas woven together with an interlude, a la Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The music is rooted firmly in Esmail’s North Indian heritage, and draped, just barely, in Western Classical tradition. Prior to the performance, Eguchi cautioned the audience to just let the sounds wash over them. “It’s not a tennis match like the Beethoven,” he said, to some amusement.

Indeed, the layering of sounds started slowly, building to a texture of music that is fascinating and very new to ears that may not be used to listening to Indian ragas. The piece is character-driven, effectively and successfully evoking the ideas of these statues without anchoring them to any one leitmotif. The orchestra and soloists Laven and violinist Julia Cash handled the work deftly yet delicately.

The program closed with a new look at an old favorite: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1, arranged for chamber orchestra by Eguchi. As Slywotzky said to the audience just before they dove in, string players “love this piece. It’s a staple.” It’s also a tricky and tall task to arrange such a well-known piece. But Eguchi’s retooling found ways to amplify the music that was already there, making the colors become even bright and bolder.

As a quartet, the piece is an animated conversation, and the exposed voices of the single instruments are a key part of following that conversation. This expanded version made it simultaneously mellower and richer, bringing out a more symphonic quality. 

In its larger guise, the first movement almost suggested pre-echoes of the Eroica Symphony, while the third movement brought a preview of the Pastorale symphony. The dramatic, Romeo and Juliet-inspired second movement sounded less like an intimate death scene and more like a funeral march. With more voices, the swells of the piece could swell more, and the drama could be even more dramatic. 

Slywotzky conducted well but the ensemble sounded tentative at times, treading ever so carefully. Some of the phrasing and lines, by virtue of there being more players, were a little less sharply defined that in the quartet version.

Overall, this was an enjoyable, interesting new spin on a classic, illuminating Beethoven’s quartet by putting it in a fresh and intriguing light.

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