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Bach Society Orchestra

At Paine Hall

By Caldwell Titcomb

One cannot often apply the term succes fou to the performance of an amatuer student orchestra; but that is precisely what the Bach Society enjoyed on Sunday, and deservedly so. It was an evening of memorable music-making, thanks to conductor Michael Senturia and his fine instrumentalists.

Temporarily belying its name, the group never-theless chose a program of three masterpieces, all of which were fairly well known but by no means hackneyed. For the G-minor Concerto grosso from Corelli's Opus 6, Senturia used a well-balanced ensemble of seventeen string players plus harpsichord. The group played with guts and gusto, though never forcing the tone. The precision was admirable and the intonation astonishingly accurate. But why, Mr. Senturia, did you decide to omit the final flowing pastorale movement?

The strings were joined by winds and harp (the latter quite a rarity on a Harvard stage) for Gabriel Faure's suite for Pelleas et Melisande, Opus 80. Faure was unsurpassed in the combination of subtle harmonies and delicate colorings; and the four movements of this suite contain some of his most exquisite writing, such as the shimmering muted violins in "La Fileuse" and the tinges of modal harmony in "Mort de Melisande." Everything here is achieved through understatement, through minute shadings within a restrained gamut. The resulting "parfum imperissable," to borrow the title of one of Faure's songs, is perfectly suited to the evocative gentleness of Maeterlinck's great Symbolist play; it is, if I may indulge in oxymoron, music of cool warmth. Such music as this demands an extraordinarily nuanced performance from every player; yet all came through with the requisite sensitivity, and the music really breathed.

The concert concluded with Mozart's D-minor Piano Concerto, K. 466, surely his finest contribution to the medium. This is a work of tragic import, until the last pages of the rondo almost turn it into a gay ensemble from an opera buffa. The piano soloist was Kenneth McIntosh, who, versatile trouper that he is, played the French horn before the intermission. He approached the concerto with uncommon intelligence, and showed that he knew when the piano writing was mere accompanimental figuration for the orchestra, a feature many professionals would do well to note. His playing was effortless, unmannered and nearly flawless. He clearly recognized the limits of the Mozart style and stayed within them. The only incongruities were the two cadenzas--fascinating but stylistically too advanced--which on later inquiry turned out to be by Beethoven. There were also from time to time some rough edges in the orchestra.

Senturia has developed from a gifted oboe virtuoso into an able conductor, and his occasional stiffness of gesture will go in time. He should, however, curb his Toscaninian urge to sing with the orchestra. He gives beats and cues clearly; and I imagine it is easy to play under him in a performance, although the superlative results point to a properly stern taskmaster in rehearsal.

The more than capacity audience called conductor and soloist back six times. It was indeed a concert of professional quality, and as fine an evening of student orchestral playing as I have heard in Cambridge over many years.

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