Lucia Lin shines in eruptive concerto with Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra

January 9, 2023 at 2:57 pm

By Devin Cholodenko

Lucia Lin performed J. P. Jofre’s Mauna Loa with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra Sunday at the Sanders Theater. Photo: Axie Breen

Emeritus director Gisèle Ben-Dor led the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in a diverse selection of works Sunday afternoon at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. The title of the program “Volcanic!,” reflected the centerpiece, J. P. Jofre’s new violin concerto, Mauna Loa, which was bookended by works of Teresa Carreño and Beethoven.

The concert led off with two short piano character pieces by Carreño, orchestrated by Juan Francisco Sans. Mi Teresita (originally titled Kleiner Waltzer) had found fame as an encore at Carreño’s own recitals—it is a sweet and sentimental work inspired and later renamed for the composer’s daughter. For the second of the short orchestrations, Un bal en rêve, Ben-Dor warned with a wink beforehand that one theme would be strikingly familiar. (The primary theme bears an almost exact resemblance to “Happy Birthday”, which, Ben-Dor noted came after the composition of Carreño’s miniature.) When the theme occurred first in the violins accompanied by syncopated winds, it elicited a hearty laugh from the crowd.

The musician-run ensemble matched the charm of the two works with a delicate interpretation, hovering mostly at a mezzo-piano dynamic. This approach was effective for Sans’ orchestration, which was penned with tasteful simplicity.

Jofre’s Mauna Loa, a 2022 violin concerto, was co-commissioned by soloist Lucia Lin. Ironically, the work’s premiere in March of last year preceded the November eruption of the active title volcano in Hawaii. According to Jofre, the work has a less violent inspiration, instead reflecting beautiful moments of world travel and friendship.

The single-movement work began with a distinctive and forceful opening. Lin’s rhythmic chopped chords and motives are set against the string orchestra’s attacks, leading into an ominous lyricism. At the heart of the piece is a conflict between a rousing syncopated dance and hanging, long-wandering melodic sections that left suspensions unresolved. One feels the expression of awe, beauty, and fear, as well as a sense of excitement.

Lin played with total commitment, bringing out the score’s menacing and mysterious beauty. In the extended melody of the middle sections, over repeating bass figures, she displayed a mastery of the darkest colors of the violin’s lower register.

Ultimately, the work seemed to convey more volcanic inspiration than friendship or musical postcards. Yet while offering a vehicle for the soloist’s virtuosity, the concerto is much more than a showpiece–it effectively proceeds with its own integrity and structural logic, bringing the listener on an exciting and mysterious journey.

Coming after Mauna Loa, Beethoven’s Octet for Winds in E-Flat came from a different world. Bearing an opus number of 103, one might assume that it is a more mature work. The octet, however, was published posthumously—the true date of completion is closer to 1792. As such, it is very much a classical era work.

The ensemble performed all four movements appropriately, pleasantly, with charm and zest. They played cohesively with precise tempi, articulation, and a warm blended sound, perfect for the demands of the piece.

Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra’s string section closed out the night with a return to the music of Carreño and her Serenade for Strings in E Flat. A four-movement work drastically different in character from the charming opening miniatures, its harmonic language is permeated by a much more chromatic romanticism. 

Conversations between instrument groups were handled adeptly by Pro Arte in the moderate tempi of the opening Andante, but in the second and final movements (Allegro vivace and Tempo di marcia) more energy and dynamic contrast were needed. Perhaps the acoustic and the small size of the string ensemble contributed; a richer and more robust sound seemed needed to fulfill Carreño’s ambitions. 

The third-movement Recitativo, however, showcased the beautiful cantabile playing of Steven Laven. The principal cellist filled the hall with late-romantic yearning, guiding the melody artfully into the following prayer-like sections, and providing a highlight of the concert.

Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra members will perform string quartet music by Janacek, Osuna, Bunch, and Tsintsadze 3 p.m. February 5 at the Allen Center for Arts and Culture in West Newton.

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