Jonathan McPhee took a night off from the Boston Ballet's "Nutcracker" Saturday night to make an auspicious debut as music director of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra.
Most of the members of this unusual ensemble are full-time workers in the health care professions -- physicians, nurses, researchers, administrators. For them, making music is not a hobby but a passion; this is something you can hear in their playing and see in the expressions on their faces.
The group is well known within the medical community but has not enjoyed a high profile among concertgoers, a situation McPhee is determined to change. In artistic standards the group is at least competitive with the other prominent amateur orchestras in Boston and in the surrounding suburbs.
McPhee led off with Walton's "Crown Imperial," a noble Elgarian march composed for the coronation of George VI (father of the present Queen of England) in 1937, and closed with Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony. There was a touch of scrambling in the strings during all of the rustling in the third movement from which the stirring march theme emerges, but this was a very well-played performance -- secure, solid, and resounding.
It was also quite well planned by McPhee, who must have enjoyed conducting music by Tchaikovsky that is not "Nutcracker," "Swan Lake," or "The Sleeping Beauty." He chose moderate tempos, perhaps out of choice, or perhaps to stay within a safety zone, but everything was clear, tasteful, proportionate, and orderly. Tchaikovsky benefits from these unassuming but rarely heard qualities. And they didn't get in the way of expressing the composer's passionate emotions. The strings really dug into the finale, and most of the solos were nicely done. The audience listened attentively and seemed to know the work -- there was no burst of applause at the end of the march, as there almost always is in Symphony Hall; people knew it wasn't over.
The Longwood Symphony Orchestra has a tradition of promoting young soloists with local connections. Friday night's guest was violinist Ayano Ninomiya, alumna of the New England Conservatory and Harvard University who recently finished her master's degree at Juilliard and took second prize in last year's Naumburg Competition. Ninomiya offered Wieniawski's Second Concerto, an unusual choice, and she played it splendidly, with bold tone and accents, a sumptuously singing line, and stupendous virtuosity throughout, especially in the gypsy-style rondo-finale, which she delivered with abandon and lan.
Ninomiya lacked nothing musically or technically, but part of the fun of music like this comes from the audience's sense that the performer is having fun, too, just tossing off all these dazzling effects like an aerialist whirling through a triple somersault. The violinist was a little grim-browed for this piece, and we didn't see or feel her smile much until she was safely off the flying trapeze. McPhee and the orchestra caught her every time.
This event, like all Longwood Symphony presentations, was a benefit for a worthy medical cause, this time the Massachusetts Consortium for Children with Special Health Care Needs. It was also a good concert.