Classical Music Review: Boston Civic Symphony

By Caldwell Titcomb

One can’t go wrong with Beethoven, who provided all the music for the Boston Civic Symphony’s Jordan Hall concert on November 9. The orchestra was founded in 1924, incorporated in 1945 as the Civic Symphony of Boston, and underwent an official name change this year to Boston Civic Symphony (someone forgot to tell the printer, since the tickets carried the former name).

Since 1964, pianist Victor Rosenbaum has been concertizing and giving master classes all over the world…and playing lots of Beethoven.

As a curtain-raiser, the orchestra’s new assistant conductor, Yohei Sato, led a performance of Beethoven’s superb overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus” (1801), the composer’s only ballet. The imposing slow introduction leads into a sprightly allegro, in which the first violins kicked off skitteringly with remarkable precision.

On the podium for the rest of the concert was Max Hobart, who is in his 29th year as the group’s music director (and a veteran of 27 years as a violinist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra).

As soloist Hobart invited pianist Victor Rosenbaum. I recall the splendid performance of the Beethoven first concerto in C-major that Rosenbaum gave in Symphony Hall with the Boston Pops at the time he graduated from Brandeis University in 1964. Since then he has been concertizing and giving master classes all over the world…and playing lots of Beethoven.

On this occasion he tackled the formidable demands of the Fifth Concerto in E-flat (1809), widely known as the “Emperor” (nobody knows who came up with this moniker). The virtuosity here demanded by Beethoven was unprecedented, and Rosenbaum met all its problems with an almost note-perfect performance. He captured the majesty and intricacy of the first movement – the longest movement Beethoven ever wrote – and caught the lyricism of the hymnic slow movement, moving sneakily without break into the dancing finale that combines elements of rondo and sonata-form. Beethoven ended the concerto with a rushing upward scale followed by seven bars for the orchestra alone; but since the composer opened the concerto with roulades for the soloist, it is wholly appropriate for the piano to join in the last two chords, as Rosenbaum did here. For his performance Rosenbaum was handed three bouquets from the audience.

After intermission came Symphony No. 3 in E-flat (1809), the “Eroica” – this time the nickname did originate with Beethoven. In the first movement Hobart wisely observed the exposition repeat since it contains such a profusion of ideas. He chose good tempi for the funeral march, scherzo, and theme-and-variations finale.

This was the first time I had ever heard the Civic Symphony or seen Hobart wield a baton. On the basis of one exposure I’d say that Hobart is a generally efficient conductor but not a particularly exciting one. He has no control over the occasional horn blooper, which one finds in the best orchestras (the horn is the most treacherous instrument in the roster). But the matter that needs his special attention is the question of balance among his players. The horns were often far too loud, and the oboe was repeatedly obscured.

Prior to the concert, there was a 25-minute talk by Jan Swafford (b. 1946), composer and author, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1968 and holds graduate degrees from Yale. In his remarks he characterized the “Eroica” as “the most complex and loudest symphony up to that time” (Beethoven said he was striking out on “a new path”). I have learned that Swafford was responsible for the five pages of notes on the Beethoven pieces in the program booklet. Since these were uncommonly perceptive and astute, he ought to have been accorded a byline. The author of books on Ives and Brahms, he is currently writing a biography of Beethoven – not that we really need another one.


  1. Amy Todd on December 15, 2008 at 8:49 am

    Thank you for this review (read with regret at having missed the performance). I will keep a closer eye on the Boston Civic Symphony.

    And highly highly highly recommend the recording pictured above – it’s breath-taking.

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