In an age when everything from classified ads to restaurant reviews has taken on a bottom-up, democratic structure, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra’s collective approach to classical music seems pcularly contemporary: as one of only four cooperative orchestras in the country, the group grants performers as much say in the artistic direction of the ensemble as the director. The conductor leads the orchestra in performances and rehearsals, but the players themselves are the ones who, among other orchestral duties, select the program.
The organizational framework of an ensemble does not mean much if the music is not good, though, and Pro Arte’s September 9 performance in Sanders Theatre did its unique format credit. The orchestra gave solid renditions—technically wonderful, never quite exhilarating, but scarcely boring—of two Beethoven masterpieces, the “Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61” and the fourth symphony.
The afternoon began with the violin concerto, a staple of the solo violin repertoire, and soloist Arturo Delmoni did the part justice. Delmoni moved nimbly among the piece’s long and fast passages and scarcely batted an eyelash, and in the third and final movement, during the closing cadenza, his control was outstanding as he landed heavily and precisely on sustained notes.
The orchestra played off Delmoni very well—they pulled at the seams between soloist and ensemble only briefly, during a particularly difficult tutti violin passage, when the orchestra sped slightly ahead of Delmoni. Dynamically, their balance was exceptional—never once was Delmoni drowned out by the players behind him, and never did it sound like the orchestra lost interest. The first movement’s rudely intrusive D sharps, a half step above the concerto’s key center of D, could have sounded grotesque but instead, through the orchestra’s smooth but weighty playing, felt appropriately heavy.
During the concerto, Delmoni never ventured into the realm of theatricality, an attitude that characterized the orchestra’s performance in general. There were no gross bursts of dynamics, no protracted pauses—none of the artistic decisions the orchestra made felt contrived or melodramatic. This ethos reflected a relatively conservative approach to Beethoven’s music, and considering the repertoire of the group, the style seemed appropriate. Many of Beethoven’s pieces, especially many of his titanic later works, lend themselves to a dramatic, podium-pounding interpretation; however, the violin concerto and the fourth symphony are among the less grandiose of Beethoven’s pieces and therefore merit a more subtle, restrained treatment.
Sandwiched between the much more famous third and fifth, Beethoven’s fourth symphony is often overlooked. It is neither as dramatic nor as immediately entertaining as the works on either side of it, but it proved the highlight of the afternoon in Pro Arte’s energetic rendition. In the first movement, the string players wove Beethoven’s melodies dexterously in and out of each other with celebratory exuberance. Above it all, conductor Kevin Rhodes seemed more a guide than a leader; occasionally, when his conducting became purely functional rather than independently expressive, it seemed the orchestra could have continued playing without him.
The second movement was characterized by a perfectly balanced conversation between the different sections of the orchestra, with the strings carrying a melody that the brass and winds would interrupt, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes abruptly. The fourth movement simmered—and frequently boiled over—like a pot on a stove. The cellos, basses, and timpani laid down a warm, unobtrusive carpet of sound across which the higher instruments danced gleefully, until the occasional moment when a burst of forte sixteenth notes would dominate the moment.
Taken as a whole, the orchestra’s performance didn’t seem to be especially influenced by the group’s unique organization—it wasn’t the case that Pro Arte’s democratic nature translated into a more egalitarian, more cohesive performance than those of traditionally managed orchestras. Instead, Pro Arte simply gave a great classical music concert, and really, that’s all that matters.
—Staff writer Matthew J. Watson can be reached at email@example.com.