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The last time I heard Victor Manusevitch conduct the Cambridge Civic Symphony Orchestra was two years ago at another Summer School concert. Out of kindness to the orchestra (and to avoid painful memories) I shall not try to recall that occasion except to note how relieved I was yesterday evening to find Mr. Manusevitch's group so much improved.
To be sure, the orchestra still has its problems. Throughout much of the concert the strings sounded pitifully thin--a common failing among amateur ensembles--and the French horns occasiosally gave out some glaringly uncalled-for sounds. But on the whole the Cambridge Civic Symphony carried off its tribute to Shakespeare quite competently, even with occasional moments of unexpected brilliance.
The concert began with Othello, a little-known overture by Dvorak. Othello turns out to be quite a good overture, too, and the orchestra went through it smoothly. The only mishaps were a few unintended clangs probably from a jittery percussionist.
For its major work, the orchestra performed excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet, combining these with readings from the play. Mr. Manusevitch had obviously rehearsed this wonderful music thoroughly; except for some wretched brass playing in an andante section, all of the movements were well done. The speakers were also good, particularly Daniel Seltzer, who read an opening chorus, Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, and some of Friar Laurence's best lines. Lynn Milgrim Phillips made a charming Juliet, and Paul Schmidt an adequate Romeo, though his relentless theatricality became a bit tiresome.
Unfortunately, the idea of having speakers and musicians collaborate on Romeo and Juliet might have been better thought out. The balcony scene, for one thing, is much too long to be sandwiched between two sections of Prokofiev's score. And while it seems terribly clever to have appropriate readings with the music, I really don't think the performance demonstrated the relevance of one to the other; the only "scene" which came off effectively was the closing one in the tomb--in which the music does convey beautifully the mood of Shakespeare's words.
After intermission, the orchestra breezed through six not-very-challenging movements of Shostakovitch's Suite from Incidental [and very trivial] Music to Hamlet, half of which sounds like a collection of ditties out of a Gilbert and Sullivan treatment of the play. The other half suggests the score of a Joseph L. Mankiewicz Hamlet starring Mr. and Mrs. Burton.
Of course, the concert closed with Tschaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet overture-fantasia, a lovely work even if it has been played to death. Again, one couldn't miss a very few wrong notes, but, in general, the orchestra did a fine job. It is indeed pleasant to report how for the Cambridge Civic Symphony has come in two years.
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