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Music Review

BCO keeps classics fresh at Faneuil Hall

Music director Steven Lipsitt Music director Steven Lipsitt
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / September 26, 2011

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The lively, unpretentious music-making of the Boston Classical Orchestra has always been the group’s strongest selling point, but its distinctive venue has also become inseparable from the ensemble’s identity. Since 1980, the BCO has made its home in Faneuil Hall. How many orchestras can claim a space so steeped in politics and history? A period audience peers out from the hall’s enormous mural, and keeping lofty watch over the concert proceedings are busts of Daniel Webster, Frederick Douglass, and John Adams (referring, for once in a classical context, to the American president - as opposed to the living composer, or the other living composer, or even the BCO’s first music director, the late F. John Adams).

In its scale and its history, Faneuil Hall offers sympathetic resonance with the core classical repertoire that music director Steven Lipsitt has placed at the center of the BCO’s agenda. In what was no doubt a simple coincidence, but one that nonetheless underlined chronological links, Saturday night’s season-opening concert, billed as an “old-fashioned ‘best of the classics’ program,’’ featured Beethoven’s “Eroica’’ Symphony. The work in its day famously represented a major expansion of the symphonic genre in its scale and ambitions, with its public premiere taking place in Vienna in 1805, the same year that Boston chose the architect Charles Bulfinch to renovate and significantly expand Faneuil Hall to suit the needs of the growing city.

On Saturday night, Lipsitt and BCO didn’t appear to have in mind any radical reimagining or new statements on this beloved masterwork - none are required - but only the desire to bring it across with freshness and vitality, which they admirably achieved. In some ways, the echoey acoustics of Faneuil Hall cut in two directions, allowing even chamber orchestra-sized forces to summon an exciting and thunderously loud dynamic (which BCO frequently did in the Beethoven, beginning with those massive opening chords), but also making it more difficult to achieve and bring across more subtle detailing in balance and ensemble work. Saturday’s best moments came in the robust and forceful outer movements, with the BCO string players laying into the music and Lipsitt drawing out a performance both vigorous and free of routine. Oboist Mark McEwen contributed some notably fine solos to the funeral march.

The evening opened with Rossini’s Overture to “The Barber of Seville,’’ energetically dispatched, and continued with Saint-Saens’s Cello Concerto, with the Boston-based cellist Allison Eldredge as soloist. That piece begins with a gesture akin to the orchestra blasting open a trap door out of which the solo line acrobatically tumbles. From that very first entrance, Eldredge’s approach fused expressive heat with brisk technical efficiency. Her tone was rich, large, and centered.

In comments from the podium before the Saint-Saens, Lipsitt acknowledged the orchestra’s recent loss of Deborah Blackmore Abrams, a BCO trustee, and Sean Roberts, BCO’s executive director, who died this month from cancer. Saturday’s performances were dedicated to their memory.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.