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September 26, 2012

Jonathan Blumhofer

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, 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.


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.


After intermission 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.  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.


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.

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