Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra roves from Mozart to Thomas with variable results

September 30, 2018 at 1:09 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Kevin Rhodes conducted the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra Saturday night in Newton.

Kevin Rhodes conducted the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra Saturday night in Newton.

Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra opened its 41stseason Saturday night at Newton’s First Baptist Church. The concert was led by principal conductor Kevin Rhodes and featured a thoughtful, wide-ranging program, roving from Mozart to Augusta Read Thomas.

Thomas’s Prayer and Celebration began the evening. A short, meditative essay written in 2007, it consciously evokes Mahler, both through near-quotations and textural allusions, as well as, near the end, a more populist, Copland-esque style.

Yet Prayer and Celebration is hardly derivative: The Chicago-based composer’s often-complex language peeks around corners and the melodic writing never settles for the obvious.

Some tentative solo moments in Saturday’s performance aside, Rhodes and Pro Arte gave the work a warm, involved reading. Thomas’s subtle orchestration, in which woodwind lines flow seamlessly out of string sonorities, was delicately etched, as were the score’s pungent tinges of chromaticism.

The night’s most robust fare – both for duration and expressive extroversion – was Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major for flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn, K. 297b. Written in 1778 when the composer was in Paris, there exists neither autograph manuscript nor original parts. Scholars have debated whether or not the piece we know is a Mozart original or a knock-off since a score bearing its title turned up in the late 19thcentury. (Saturday’s performance utilized Robert Levin’s reconstruction of the work, which certainly sounds like the real deal.)

The featured Pro Arte wind–flutist Ann Bobo, oboist Nancy Dimmock, bassoonist Ronald Haroutunian, and hornist Robert Marlatt–proved a thoroughly engaged and collegial quartet. Marlatt’s solos were conspicuously rich-toned and pure, while Bobo, Dimmock, and Haroutunian easily matched each other for warmth and unanimity of articulation.

In their hands, the Sinfonia’s outer movements exhibited a strong sense of dialogue, both among the soloists and in their exchanges with the orchestra. In the slow middle section, the dovetailing of lines between the solo ensemble was well-shaped and beautifully nuanced. Rhodes led the orchestra in a robust accompaniment, one that never lacked for drive, pluck, or good balances.

After intermission came Gabirel Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande. Culled together from his 1898 incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play, it’s an appropriately dark piece, though never lacking in stirring lyricism.

Saturday’s reading of the “Prélude” was potent, its climaxes passionate and boldly colored. Oboist Dimmock’s solos in “La Fileuse” were spot-on, as were flutist Bobo’s in the “Sicilienne.” The concluding “La mort de Mélisande” tread purposefully, the ensemble capably drawing out the music’s flickering chiaroscuro patterns.

Berlioz’s 1829 cantata La mort de Cléopâtre rounded out the evening. Completed just months after Schubert’s death, it’s a piece that, in terms of harmony, orchestration, and expressive immediacy, was decades ahead of its time. Indeed, for freshness and inventive daring, Cléopâtre remain breathtaking.

Alas, its most radical virtues weren’t fully conveyed on Saturday night, though for no lack of effort.

Barbara Quintiliani  brought lustrous tone and impressive control to Cléopâtre’s big moments. Yet the soprano was too score-bound at the beginning and her diction wasn’t consistent throughout; by the time the “Meditation” (“Grand Pharaons, nobles Lagides”) rolled around, the sheer intensity of her singing carried the day.

The orchestra gave a solid, if occasionally rough, account of the instrumental writing, sometimes covering their soloist. There were additional spots of loose ensemble as well as hesitancy in exposed passagework, like the violin riffs in the final section.

The “Meditation,” with its eerie harmonic progressions and prominent writing for trombones was more compelling. In broad strokes, Rhodes illustrated Berlioz’s overarching dramatic conception of the narrative.

Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra’s season continues with music by Fanny Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Schubert. 8 p.m. January 12 at First Baptist Church in Newton.; 617-779-0900

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