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Classical Review: Don’t Forget About The Boston Philharmonic

Kashkashian Shines In Harbison’s Viola Concerto

By Kelley Rivoire

Boston Philharmonic Orchestra

Benjamin Zander, conductor

Kim Kashkashian, viola

Jordan Hall, Boston

Saturday, Oct. 16, 2005

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is the orchestra around here — and around the world. But the city offers a range of ensembles that deserve their own spotlight outside the BSO’s shadow. Last Saturday night, the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra grabbed this spotlight, with an energetic performance of Brahms’ “Tragic Overture,” MIT Institute Professor John Harbison’s “Viola Concerto,” and Robert Schumann’s “Rhenish Symphony.”

The Boston Philharmonic, a semi-professional orchestra, includes students, young professionals, and even some with careers unrelated to music. Led since their creation 26 years ago by Conductor Benjamin Zander of the New England Conservatory of Music, the group brings the enthusiasm of an ensemble where members play music for joy, rather than by necessity.

Though not a fully professional orchestra, the BPO draws its fair share of star power — and Saturday was no exception with Kim Kashkashian, an NEC faculty member and one of only a handful of world-renowned violists, as soloist. Kashkashian’s performance, which drew repeated curtain calls, was the highlight of the night, with the Brahms overture and Schumann symphony, played powerfully, anchoring the performance,

Brahms’ “Tragic Overture” beautifully showcased the orchestra’s rich sound, from the two opening chords to the dark melodies. Brahms wrote the “Tragic Overture” concurrently with his lighter, more playful “Academic Festival Overture” — the two are meant to serve as contrasting pieces. The crisp bow strokes of the strings, especially in dotted rhythms, perfectly captured the incredible tension in the work.

The orchestra displayed a nice range of expressions, with the flute and oboe melodies carrying an ethereal, otherworldly softness. The strings continued this almost chilling touch, though the inner strings sometimes seemed a bit uncoordinated and the brass occasionally off pitch. The return to the opening themes came with enormous energy, and the closing rose dramatically, drawing the loud and much-deserved applause of the audience.

Only a subset of the orchestra (a handful of string players per section, along with woodwinds and brass, xylophone, timpani, piano, and harp) remained on stage for Harbison’s “Viola Concerto,” a piece that delights in subtleties and intricacies. Harbison chose to play the viola as his first instrument, and his writing for the viola successfully expresses the viola’s unique mellow range and tone, rather than merely transposing to alto clef a concerto that would otherwise sound better on the violin or cello.

Rarely is any viola concerto played in concert, let alone by a violist of Kashkashian’s ability and reputation, so her performance of Harbison’s work was quite a treat. From the opening of the first movement, the rich texture and harmonies of Harbison’s concerto were evident. The movement, filled with creative interactions between soloist and orchestra, captured the audience, even with a wandering, picaresque solo line in place of a memorable melody to whistle home.

The devilishly fast second movement, its repetitiveness providing a sharp contrast to the first, showed off Kashkashian’s playing, and she and the orchestra matched their complicated entrances perfectly, right up to the abrupt ending. In some places passages, though, the orchestra seemed to overpower the soloist slightly. In the third movement, Harbison scores a lyrical, almost melodic line, including a nicely-balanced section accompanied by the harp. Like the preceding movement, the third ends a bit unexpectedly.

The bright fourth movement brings a tantalizing combination of jazzy rhythm (a Harbison trademark) and chirping woodwinds, all topped by intricate, lightning-fast figurations in the solo part almost reminiscent of a hoedown. A bit distractingly though, the interwoven, repeated percussion sequences sounded almost straight out of Barber’s “Medea’s Dance of Vengeance.” Kashkashian dazzled, bringing rousing round after round of applause (in the audience was Professor Harbison himself), finally conceding to give an encore only after elaborate gestures by Zander. Her encore was a hauntingly beautiful Armenian folk song (Kashkashian is of Armenian descent) entitled “The Crane”; the song, as she described it, is meant to express, through the crane, the feeling of when “you lose your way home, and you can’t find your way.” Her pure, ringing sound evoked exactly that as she played yearning lament, her eyes closed throughout.

The orchestra concluded with Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, written when the composer first moved to Germany’s Rhine region, hopeful in his new life. Again, the orchestra brought out all its guns, with great horn solos from beginning to end, though I missed the subtleness the smaller orchestra had achieved in the Harbison, especially in the pastoral second movement of the symphony.

The orchestra did manage to play more gently in the middle movements, but seemed to lose momentum simultaneously. Nevertheless, they roared back for the symphony’s conclusion, again showing off their rich sound.

From start to end, the performance was enjoyable, with the rare Harbison Viola Concerto the gem of the night. For those who’ve never heard a viola soloist before, Kashkashian will give a recital on Nov. 8 with pianist Robert Levin.

The Boston Philharmonic adds an important dynamic to the Boston Symphony culture — one perk is that the orchestra performs in the more intimate Jordan Hall. Their next performance in November should be well worth attending.