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Hogwood anestheizes; Sinfonia pleasant, not powerful

HANDEL & HAYDN SOCIETY

Conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

Program of works by Jean-F'ery Rebel,

Ravel, Bizet, and Strauss.

Symphony Hall, February 24 & 26.

SINFONOVA

Conducted by Aram Gharabekian.

Works by Tigran Mansurian,

Lukas Foss, and Beethoven.

Event in The Tech Performing Arts Series.

Jordan Hall, February 25.

By JONATHAN RICHMOND

IN A RATHER TOO CLEVER NOTE in the latest issue of Upbeat, a publication of Boston's Handel & Haydn Society, Artistic Director Christopher Hogwood complains that for many years "the activities of H & H caused few ripples beyond the boundaries of Boston; however excellent the endeavor, the repercussions, rather like the effect of certain anesthetics, could only be described as `local.' " Hogwood need not have been concerned about the effect of his leadership on the Society last Friday night, for the unaesthetic effects of most of the performances he led were quite general, and ensured that everyone was sent to sleep.

It's not that the orchestra played badly from a technical perspective; it's that Hogwood's readings were for the most part lifeless, and failed to stir the imagination. The evening began with excerpts from Jean-F'ery Rebel's ballet Les El'emens. This music, dating from 1737, is dramatic beyond its time, and the opening Hogwood provided to Le Cahos was certainly startling; the remainder of the excerpts were bland, however.

Hogwood, now firmly settled into elegant-elevator-music-autopilot mode, continued with a colorless account of Ravel's Pavane pour une infante d'efunte. There was a natural horn, which Hogwood had told the audience Ravel had demanded; but this alone could not make the performance "authentic," much less, inspired or enjoyable: the notes may have been played correctly, but there was no tone-painting; and there was no poignancy, no humanity, no art.

Bizet's Suite from the Incidental Music to L'Arl'esienne was equally dull. Orchestral sound was uniformly cold for each of the seven movements. Unilluminated by the slightest originality in interpretation, and played mechanically, the music was dead, and the audience bored.

Things luckily looked up after the intermission, when the Studebaker Movement Theater Company joined the Handel & Haydn Society for Strauss's ballet, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The choreography and staging by Lesley Bannatyne was amusingly done; the sense of timing was impeccable, and the gestures came straight out of Moli`ere.

Perhaps the goings-on in front of the orchestra infected the music-making with warmth, for at last the tones from Hogwood's strings smiled and the orchestra played as a vital, organic whole. At last the audience heard something which was entertaining and, more importantly, which was on a human scale. Let's hope Hogwood will try to build on the successes of this breath of fresh air to enrich his future concerts with the Handel & Haydn Society.

This was not the most insightfully nuanced or elegantly delivered performance of this music, such as one might expect from a great orchestra or a great conductor, to be sure. : it was polite, rather than profound.

SATURDAY NIGHT'S SINFONOVA concert was also disappointing, though hardly on the same scale. The orchestra, which won both the 1988 American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers award for adventurous programming and the 1988 Lucien Wulsin Award for the best concert performance from National Public Radio, is led by one of Boston's most fertile musical minds, Aram Gharabekian. He is a conductor with an uncanny ability to probe to the spiritual essence of the music he programs, to either sell the new compellingly or present the new in the old. Gharabekian's latest effort, however, can best be described as pleasant, rather than inspirational.

There were two new works on offer. First came The Cello Concerto No. 2 by Soviet-Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian. It was another one of those Soviet pieces which has few ideas -- in this case rather gloomy ones -- and plays on them too much. Certainly Karine Georgian put in some passionate cello playing; and there were moments in the second movement -- Mobile, quasi parlando -- which were quite animated. But, although it wasn't quite Stalinist Bureaucratmusik, the concerto had little soul; perhaps glasnost has yet to reach all of the Armenian arts.

The Renaissance Concerto for Flute and Orchestra by Lukas Foss, did show a good deal of imaginative scoring, even if some of it tended to be on the facile side. The flute part is attractive, and was given a virtuoso performance by Carol Wincenc. Her light and nimble playing meshed effectively with the fine balance Gharabekian secured in the orchestra. A darker, more contemplative, side was shown in the third movement Recitative (After Monteverdi), and the rhythms of the fourth movement were exploited by Gharabekian to bring out the work's color and wit.

The concert had begun with Beethoven's Coriolanus Overture. Gharabekian decided to take this at an unusually slow tempo to try to probe some of the work's deeper side. His opening was strong, but occasionally slack and over-smooth strings led to lapses in tension. The concert ended with more Beethoven, the Symphony No. 2. This was delivered somewhat abrasively, and in the middle two movements was on the heavy side. The concluding Allegro molto was more brightly lit, however, and brought an exciting conclusion to the work.