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Music Review

BCO opens its season with Bach

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / September 27, 2010

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The Boston Classical Orchestra and music director Steven Lipsitt opened their 31st season under the familiar stern gazes of various Adamses and two different Daniel Websters, among others. Faneuil Hall, the BCO’s home, is rather like its chamber-orchestra tenant, small in dimension but ambitious in effect (one of those Websters, after all, is portrayed replying to Hayne on a fairly epic scale). On Saturday, though, the BCO needed a little time before finding the right balance.

The opener was Bach’s A minor Violin Concerto (BWV 1041). Soloist Sharan Leventhal gave a performance of sturdy heft, the tone more sculpted than spun, hewing phrases out of the score with athletic bowing. The orchestra followed suit with solid, weighty sound. Bach’s intricate lines interestingly pushed against the grain — like an engine in low gear, but with high RPM. (Leventhal’s encore, Virgil Thomson’s “In a Bird Cage,’’ a musical portrait of the Surrealist writer Lise Deharme, was a charming burst of angular twittering.)

The weight became problematic in Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 (D. 485), in which the orchestra seemed to try very hard to sound larger than it was; starting from so vigorous a baseline, the group didn’t leave room for contrast. Where the music could get by on energy — parts of the acerbic Menuetto, or the bouncy finale — the visceral approach could be bracing. But intonation and ensemble ebbed when the dynamic dipped, and those parts of the symphony requiring long-range shape became only intermittently lovely rambles.

The second half was much better. The “Nocturne’’ from Mendelssohn’s incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ — a memorial to longtime BCO horn player Nona Gainsforth, led from the section by hornist Richard Menaul — was rich and sparkling, with a chamber-music-like vibrancy.

And Mozart’s G minor Symphony No. 40 (K. 550) had style and sheen. Greater care and security at lower volumes let loud sections seem louder — the sudden, extreme shifts in the opening movement exploded with pointed flourish — while producing transparency in gentler sections: The keening, overlapping lines of the Andante were expressive in their heterogeneous color. Presenting the symphonic repertoire on the BCO’s intimate scale is always a bit of a risk (the Andante’s tripping chains of paired notes, for instance, could have used the redundancy of more strings). But it’s in embracing the benefits — the possibilities for clarity, delicacy, and individual interplay — that the BCO is at its best.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

BOSTON CLASSICAL ORCHESTRA Steven Lipsitt, music director

With Sharan Leventhal, violin

At: Faneuil Hall, Saturday