Currently in its 29th season, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston is in a time of transition. Its conductor emeritus, Isaiah Jackson , has effectively stepped aside during the final year of his contract, and all but one of the concerts he was scheduled to lead were assigned to guest conductors. The orchestra, run as a musicians' collective, is just beginning the search for Jackson's successor.
In the meantime, Jackson led one final performance with the group Wednesday night at the Back Bay Events Center, as part of a fund-raiser to support Pro Arte's ambitious and worthy projects teaching and mentoring students in need. The big draw for the sold-out evening was Yo-Yo Ma playing Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Ma has known Jackson for decades and the two seemed to enjoy a warm rapport onstage. Behind his cello, Ma was as eloquent and persuasive as ever.
But for the rest of the concert, the level of the orchestra's playing under Jackson's baton was surprisingly inconsistent. This was my first time hearing the Pro Arte so I cannot compare Wednesday's performance with the group's previous accomplishments. But the orchestra's rich history and its associated guest artists and guest conductors suggest an ensemble that should do far better than this.
The program opened with five movements from Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" Suite. There were some occasional felicitous contributions from the winds and brass, but overall the group's sound was tentative, its ensemble was sometimes shaky, and the intonation in the strings hit far too many rough patches. The challenging ultra-dry acoustics of the hall could not have made things easier, but Jackson's leadership was also limited. He has been open about his past struggles with hearing loss, but it's impossible to know how much that affected Wednesday's results. One can say that his conducting reflected little of the vibrancy and precision that this larger program demanded. Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings did not fare much better than the Stravinsky , needing not only more rehearsal time to settle but also an infusion of inner tension and interpretive conviction.
Fortunately, Ma appeared in the second half and blazed through the Shostakovich concerto with his signature passion, tonal resourcefulness, and dramatic intensity. Jackson and the orchestra struggled at times to keep pace, and while Ma played with the collected wattage of a small city, the Pro Arte seemed to be running on candlelight. After the Shostakovich , Ma brought the concert to a wistful close with a beautiful, deep-breathing slow movement of Bach, his long lines washing over a transfixed auditorium.
It's possible that Pro Arte had an off night, or more probably, that this was the outward confirmation of a relationship between conductor and musicians that has grown unproductive as it nears the end of its seven years. But Wednesday's concert also suggested a broader need for Pro Arte to take stock and to reconnect with its mission. Speaking generally about the ensemble by phone the next morning, executive director Kathleen M. Kearns called it a "make or break" time for the group. That much was clear.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.