Suburban Mozart that swings

Lexington Symphony at Cary Hall, Lexington, MA, September 13, 2008
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  October 9, 2008


It’s a tribute to the quality of Boston’s classical-music scene that a suburban orchestra like the Lexington Symphony is capable of a performance to attract the attention of those who live closer to Symphony Hall. Even if the BSO season were in full swing, last Saturday’s program would have been worth the trip. Cary Hall’s clear-eyed acoustics are a plus, and then there’s the Lexington’s music director, the in-demand Jonathan McPhee (he also leads the Boston Ballet Orchestra, the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, and the Nashua Symphony Orchestra), and one of his typically thoughtful programs: Witold Lutoslawski’s Dance Preludes and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis preceding Mozart’s familiar (but how often do you hear it live?) Requiem, for which he had Holly Krafta’s stellar New World Chorale.

Lutoslawski completed the original version of his Dance Preludes, for clarinet and piano, in 1954, but McPhee presented the 1955 revision for clarinet, harp, piano, percussion, and strings. Replete with Polish folk rhythms, the five sections alternate fast with slow, with a waltzy, moody second part, a spare and mysterious fourth, and a finale with a tune suggestive of the one Tchaikovsky used in the finale of his Fourth Symphony. Local clarinettist William Kirkley was forthright in tone and sure-footed in rhythm.

The Fantasia, which Vaughan Williams composed in 1910 (he continued to work on it till 1919), calls for three ensembles: a string orchestra, a double string quartet with bass, and a string quartet, all playing off one another like the choirs in a Venetian church. Tallis’s theme, in Phrygian mode, turns into something Bruckner might have come up with. The piece is a staple of easy-listening classical-music radio stations (though I don’t recall hearing it lately on WCRB), usually in high-calorie interpretations that swathe it in creamy comfort. This reading, with poignant solos from concertmistress Elizabeth Whitfield and principal violist Lisa Kempskie, was reverent in an English-folk-song way, a country-church rather than a cathedral, full-throated, a little unshaded (or was that the bright acoustic?), aching rather than pompous in its beauty.

McPhee’s Requiem was equal parts prayer and folk dance, with the New World Chorale (its members on book but visibly peeping out over the top at their conductor) a vox populi rather than a celestial choir, now lyric, now lilting, now tragic. Polyphony was exemplary; I kept flashing ahead to Schubert and Bruckner. It wasn’t grandiose Mozart or undernourished Mozart, simply direct and fervent, with moderate tempos of a piece, almost too much so. The strings seemed a little thin leading off the “Recordare” and in the waltz-like “Lacrimosa”; against that there was Wes Hopper’s tenor-trombone solo to begin the “Tuba mirum,” neither creamy nor creaky but somehow both rich and dry, and the noble basset horns of Kirkley and Richard Carpenter. The quartet of vocal soloists — Holly Cameron, Cindy Vredeveld (replacing Cabiria Jacobsen), Martin Thomson, and Michael Prichard — were, like the orchestra, solid; I was most taken with Vredeveld’s dusky mezzo and Prichard’s declamatory bass. This Requiem danced, it swung, and it sang with a human voice.

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