Concert Review: Joseph Silverstein and the Boston Conservatory Orchestra/Bruce Hangen at Sanders Theater

Now a remarkably energetic 80, violinist Joseph Silverstein may have lost a bit of his former technical facilities, but his playing is marked by musical sensibilities that come from his many years of experience.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The timeless Joseph Silverstein

Among the many orchestras dotting the greater Boston musical landscape, it’s often easy to overlook groups representing the city’s several universities and conservatories. And that is unfortunate: not only does the repertoire of these ensembles often feature pieces one doesn’t typically encounter on a professional orchestra’s subscription series (check out the New England Conservatory Philharmonia this season for some particularly enlivening fare), but the concerts are, on the whole, very well played and tickets inexpensive.

Boston’s oldest conservatory is the aptly named Boston Conservatory, and the Boston Conservatory Orchestra (BCO) gave its first concert of the season this past Sunday at Sanders Theater. One of the school’s newest faculty members, the timeless Joseph Silverstein, was the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, while Rossini’s Overture to La gazza ladra and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra rounded out the program. Bruce Hangen conducted.

If this programming sounds familiar, it is: last month the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (TMCO) closed its summer season with two of these pieces (that time Rossini was the odd-man-out). In the August concert, Gil Shaham presented a sunny, engaging account of the Beethoven Concerto that was marked by sweet lyricism and several unexpected turns of phrase (particularly in his cadenzas). On Sunday, Mr. Silverstein adhered to a more traditional approach with taut tempos and the normal cadenzas, but a similarly satisfying musicality was the end result.

Now a remarkably energetic 80, Mr. Silverstein may have lost a bit of his former technical facilities, but his playing is marked by musical sensibilities that come from his many years of experience. On Sunday, he was a nicely understated soloist in this most monumental of concerti, playing along with the first violins during the lengthy orchestral introduction and interludes and drawing his listeners in with a sweet, focused, golden tone. The highlight of his performance surely was the slow second movement, in the hushed, central section of which Mr. Silverstein created a rapt, inward-looking melodic essay that felt both inevitable and improvised.

The BCO and Mr. Hangen proved satisfactory accompanists, though the symphonic dimension of the orchestral part, so present in the earlier TMCO performance, was curiously lacking at times here.

After intermission, though, came a very strong reading of the Concerto for Orchestra, one that at its best moments—and there were several—rivaled any performance of this piece I’ve heard, live or on record. There once was a day when this piece belonged solely to professionals. No more: both the TMCO and BCO have delivered professional-caliber performances in the last month and on Sunday, in the rather intimate confines of Sanders Theater, this became a Concerto for Orchestra that grabbed you by the shirt collars and took you on a 50-some-minute long thrill ride.

Conductor Bruce Hagen

Yes, it was that good, even though there were a couple of transitions in the second and fourth movements that weren’t quite perfectly executed. On the whole, though, this concentrated performance never shied away from Bartók’s virtuosic writing. On the contrary, everyone seemed to embrace it: the strings, in the swirling eddies of notes in the finale; the winds, especially in the interior movements; and the brass, heroically and magnificently, in the outer movements. Indeed, the BCO’s reading was marked by clarity and precision in the many contrapuntal textures, especially the fugal brass entries of the opening movement.

In terms of characterizing the Concerto’s many moods, Mr. Hangen drew a nice sense of mystery from the orchestra in the first movement’s opening that bode well for what came later; the tongue-in-cheek Shostakovich quote in the fourth movement came across with particularly rollicking spirit; and the Concerto’s closing pages were jubilant, triumphant, and majestic all at once. Appropriately, the third movement formed the emotional core of the performance, featuring crystalline textures and some fine woodwind and percussion playing.

The decision to begin the concert with Rossini’s 1817 Overture looked curious on paper and, in practice, didn’t quite fit with the sobriety of the other works on the program. Mr. Hangen led a straightforward rendition of the piece that was a bit muddled, texturally, in some of its climaxes but well emphasized Rossini’s ever inventive instrumental combinations (the piccolo/bassoon duet, for one, called to mind the similar combination of piccolo/bass clarinet in György Ligeti’s magnificently berserk Chamber Concerto) and his formidable capabilities as a tunesmith.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts