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The Cambridge Civic Symphony Orchestra is a local group of some 64 people who cleverly describe themselves as "semi-professional" musicians. This is clever because no one, least of all a critic, knows just what a "semi-professional" musician is, and therefore can have no reasonable idea of just how good one ought to be. For this reason most critics will be nice, because even a music critic would rather appear nice than look confused. And so it goes.
Or at least so it went until Tuesday night. At that point the Cambridge Civic Symphony Orchestra committed the irreparable blunder of presenting a public concert which rather swiftly defined their status: a "semi-professional" musician, the world may at last know, is a poorish amateur musician who wants you to pay good money to hear him play.
Presumably the orchestra has improved since it was first founded four years ago; Mr. Victor Manusevitch, the conductor, walked into the first rehearsal with the score of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony under his arm to find himself the director of 20 instrumentalist, eight of them flautists. Now, at any rate, the orchestra has at least one of everything and a respectable number of string players. Unfortunately, most of them should have never have been let in sight of any orchestra: the woodwinds, en bloc, refused to stay in tune with the rest of the orchestra; not that one was often aware of this: for the brass refused to let anyone even hear the rest of the orchestra. The tubist, who punctuated the evening with a succession of singular sounds, must be singled out for special opprobrium.
And then there was the program itself. Mr. Manusevitch must be vividly aware of the limitations of his group, and yet he chose to play two works that were obviously beyound the capabilities of his musicians and one piece that was beneath the contempt of his audience. (The two were Bartok's Third Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E; the one, a Symphony in D by a French composer of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras named Etienne-Nicolas Mehul.) Perhaps Mr. Manusevitch simply can't think of anything else to do with his orchestra.
The Mehul, somewhat surprisingly, went quite well. The Symphony was listed in the program as a local premiere, and the fact that it had never been played in Boston before, in all its 153 years, was curiously comforting to me as I listened to its first performance, Mehul was a composer of small imagination and only indifferent technical competence, and his symphony contains little but hack work. The orchestra seemed to like it, though, and they managed to play the first three movements in decent enough fashion. Their attack was spirited and lively, their intonation misleadingly good; only their dynamic shadings were not what they might have been: most of the piano passages melted into thin air.
The Bartok, however, was another matter. Miss Katja Andy, a very good piano player, was the soloist, and one of her best qualities, thankfully, is an ability to complete her appointed rounds, like the postman, without reference to threatening atmospheric conditions. Consequently, one was often able to hear Miss Andy's precise, professional, and sensibly articulated playing even in the teeth of an orchestral noise of near gale force. This piano concerto was also listed as a premiere performance in the area, but that is a mistake: its premiere has yet to be heard.
And then there was the Tchaikovsky. This was a complete riot. Mr. Manusevitch's interpretation of this symphony obviously traces to the last three chords in Mozart's Musical Joke.
The pagination of the printed program was all wrong, too, but I won't go into that. Perhaps after another four years of hard work Mr. Manusevitch's orchestra will have reached the point where they can honestly present a free public concert.
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