Botstein leads Longy Conservatory Orchestra in worthy performances

February 8, 2014 at 1:16 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Leon Botstein led the Longy Conservatory Orchestra Friday night at Sanders Theatre.

In this past year, the Longy Conservatory Orchestra has showed itself an ensemble with an impressive level of technical polish and uniform blend. Those qualities were on display at Sanders Theatre Friday night when guest conductor Leon Botstein led the LCO in competent, even compelling performances of music by Haydn, Brahms, and Wagner.

Botstein, who serves as president of Bard College, Longy’s partner school, is a rare mix of conductor and scholar. With the American Symphony Orchestra he has fêted little-heard works alongside standard repertoire, and he has written copiously and expertly on the music by some of history’s titanic names.

His most engaging scholarship invites listeners to encounter well-known works in unexpected ways. That was especially evident with LCO’s performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major.

For this charming work, the musicians stood in a semi-circular cluster onstage, with the violas, cellos (seated of course), and basses fanning out from the violins placed at the center. The winds circled around the back to fill out the arc. Such an approach, drawn from documentary records of the first public performances of this and other of Haydn’s London Symphonies, made the nimble lines of this piece sound as a true conversation among friends.

The effect wasn’t readily apparent in the first movement’s slow introduction or the lithe statements that followed. But in the second, the historically minded staging paid off. The aria-like melody, taken at a quick pace, was light on its feet as it branched out in all directions. The orchestra pulled off a bouncy, if not quite polished Minuet. The Trio fared better. Here, Botstein pulled back on the reins for a gentle flow and elegant phrasing. The ensemble regained its focus for the sprightly finale, which showcased some dexterous playing from solo flute and horn.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor is a popular work this weekend, also closing the Boston Symphony’s concerts with Bernard Haitink downtown. Though the dramatic passages inherent in this score seemed to stand still at times in LCO’s own reading, there were plenty of fine moments.

The strings’ rich tone in the cantabile theme brought balance to the first movement’s glassy opening, and the orchestra rendered the searching, sparsely-textured passages with sensitivity. Graceful and lyrical playing from solo winds brought a funereal gravity to the second movement. And in the thirty variations that make up the Passacaglia, Botstein, with deliberate gestures, drew a colorful performance from the orchestra. Most impressive was the keening melody and velvety tone of the solo flute. The Scherzo had energy, if not the same level of precision that marked the Haydn symphony heard earlier.

The LCO delivered the goods for the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The strings’ dignified melodies and solid chords in the brasses imbued this music with a feeling of warmth and grandeur.

The concert opened with “Sistema Side by Side,” Longy’s new mentoring program that brings together grade-school-aged musicians from around the state and members of the LCO for rehearsals and concerts led by renowned conductors. Botstein directed the ensemble in two pieces, the Finale from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (arranged by Richard Meyer) and the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 (arranged by Merle J. Isaac). The young musicians of Sistema played well on both accounts. Botstein and company offered the Beethoven one more time as an encore.

Geoffrey McDonald will conduct the Longy Conservatory Orchestra in music by Ives, Copland, Martinů, and Weill 8 p.m. March 7 at Pickman Hall.

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