An evening of old favorites and new faces marked the first concert of the 1997-1998 season for the Bach Society Orchestra last Friday. Under the direction of new conductor Eric R. Tipler '99, the orchestra presented nicely rendered performances of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 ("pastoral"). The performance had some flaws, mostly of the sort one might expect from a small, student-directed orchestra, but in general it was quite solid and entertaining.
Tipler isn't new to conducting at Harvard. A junior music concentrator, he was the music director of last year's puppet performance of The Magic Flute by the Onion Weavers and was one of the three conductors of the Toscanini Chamber Orchestra last year. At Friday's performance, he appeared a little nervous, but took control of the orchestra as soon as he mounted the podium. His conducting was clear and expressive, though at time slightly tense and skittish--probably due simply to nerves. Every once in a while he appeared to forget he was in front of an audience and relaxed a little, becoming more expressive in his conducting and more enjoyable to watch. He did have a very good handle on the technical aspects of conducting, tackling even the most difficult meter changes of the Stravinsky with ease.
The program for Friday's performance was well-chosen, calculated to appeal to classical music lovers and neophytes alike. The Bach and Beethoven are beloved staples of the classical repertoire, even for the least classical-minded listeners, and the Stravinsky is a favorite of many classical music fans. The program showed some intriguing logic: Stravinsky drew on the Brandenburg for inspiration in writing the "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto. The combination of the two shorter, less heavily orchestrated pieces at the beginning, followed by the symphony at the end, was just the right balance for a satisfying evening of music.
The program opened with the Bach, briskly and energetically performed by the strings and harpsichord. It was evident from the vigor of the execution that this was a favorite piece. The concerto flew by at a snappy speed--perhaps too snappy. The third movement in particular seemed unnecessarily rushed, which caused some sloppy entrances and created a slight feeling of insecurity. This impression was perhaps augmented by the fact that the Brandenburg is one of those tried-and-true old faithfuls, one familiar to almost all the audience members, so that any tentative entrances seem that much muddier. In general, though, the concerto was quite solid. Concertmaster Mike Hsu '97 in particular gave a lovely performance in the second movement which was excerpted from Bach's Sonata in G major BWV 1021, written for solo violin and harpsichord--the latter ably played by Albert K. Kim '99.
The Dumbarton Oaks made an appropriate and thought-provoking follow-up to the Bach. The influence of the earlier work appears quite strikingly in some melodic and rhythmic allusions, though the Stravinsky definitely keeps its integrity as an entirely independent piece. (However, the connection between the two was complicated, not clarified, by the somewhat enigmatic program notes.) A reduced version of the orchestra managed Stravinsky's characteristically tricky harmonies, rhythms and meter changes, although somewhat shakily: this, and the thin orchestration of some parts, left the audience wondering at times if the group was on the verge of falling apart. Howeverall, the presentation of this charming piece was boosted by commendable performances by the wind section--in particular principal flutist Joseph E. Levin '98 and principal bassoonist Greg Landweber.
The second half of the concert went to the Pastoral Symphony, one of those old favorites that many can hum from start to finish. The orchestra attacked it with zest and did a fine job handling this picturesque masterpiece. However, with so well known a piece, any orchestra has to work that much harder to present the music in an engaging and expressive manner. That extra oomph was lacking in the Bach Soc's standard, somewhat unoriginal interpretation of the symphony. The most lyrical moments sometimes came across as a bit too brisk and deliberate--as, for example, in the famous cuckoo trill bridging the second and third movements. Tipler's choice of tempi was a little mystifying, especially in the second movement, where Beethoven's idyllic brook sounded more like a flooded cataract. There were times, however, when the sheer beauty of the music soared and the peaceful, spiritual emotions shone through.
In general, the Bach Society Orchestra gave a skillful and mature performance of an intelligently crafted program. Most of the flaws undoubtedly stemmed from adjusting to a new conductor and the relatively short amount of rehearsal time for such a challenging set of repertoire. Altogether, the concert succeeded in making a pleasant evening, and left audience members humming or whistling the undeniably memorable tunes.