Why is the theater critic slumming - I mean, showing up - in the music section? Here's a little secret: Before arriving at Seven Days a couple years ago, I was far more experienced as a music reviewer than as a stage sage, having covered symphony and opera at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin for three years. I also performed many years as a cellist and a singer.
But after this hiatus, I was worried about opining insightfully on musicians. Luckily, the Burlington Chamber Orchestra's sparkling debut Saturday night at the University of Vermont Recital Hall made it easy. Sharp analytical skills weren't needed to deconstruct the performance's success. The near-capacity crowd delighted in the diverse, diverting program, enthusiastically led by Music Director Michael Hopkins. Simply put, the BCO rocked.
The new ensemble is the brainchild of UVM professor Hopkins, who also plays bass (string, not electric) and composes in addition to teaching in the music department and conducting the college's symphony orchestra. In an interview, he outlines the inspiration for founding the group.
The first aim, Hopkins says, is "to expand classical offerings" in the Burlington area by drawing on 300 years of rich chamber-music repertoire that local audiences rarely hear performed live. His second goal is to create a group "for professional-level musicians who live locally." He assembled the BCO's 20 members (19 string players and a keyboardist) by calling Chittenden County colleagues, many of whom run full-time teaching studios but currently lack the opportunity to play in a pro orchestra. Most said yes.
As the BCO's music director, Hopkins took a kid-in-the-candy-store approach to picking pieces for the inaugural season. "To be honest, the programming is music that Michael Hopkins really loves that I think other people will love, too," he admits. All four concerts on this year's slate open with a selection from a concerto cycle by Baroque composer George Handel. "I was looking for a theme to tie the concerts together," he reflects. "And I think that these Handel Opus 6 concerti are real gems . . . and you just never hear them played around here."
Handel's Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 1 (1739) worked as an accessible and energetic opener for Saturday's performance. This chipper, five-movement work isn't cloyingly familiar, as are some of Handel's "greatest hits." A refreshing starter, it warmed up the audience for the increasingly complex courses to come. More importantly, BCO's skillful, airy rendering of the Handel showed why a cozy string concerto is the emblematic Baroque jewel. Hopkins deftly defined the concerto's dance of contrasts: slow vs. fast; loud vs. soft; solo vs. ensemble.
The divine acoustics of the recital hall also reinforced why such 18th-century pearls should only be played by a modest-sized ensemble in an intimate space, and not by a big symphony orchestra in a large concert hall. This is an axiom of authenticity. Something struck me, however, as I was listening to the BCO's burnished sound resonate so richly off the gorgeous woods of the UVM venue: I always thought Handel and company didn't use large ensembles because they didn't have them. But most 18th-century performance spaces were modestly sized and built of acoustically friendly timber. Hopkins demonstrated why Handel simply didn't need a cast of thousands. Every nuance and note rang clear in the quietest passages, and yet the sound of the small ensemble swelled to fill the hall magnificently when the music required.
The small group's power became even clearer in the lush, lyrical second movement of the next piece, Edward Elgar's Serenade for Strings (1892). The gently ascending, melodic passages - led beautifully by the violin section - reflected the rural Englishman's pastoral side. The Serenade's relaxed, quiet elegance encapsulated a key BCO strength: Leaving the brass at home lets you hear the Pomp and Circumstance guy in a whole new way.
Hopkins' humorous, informative intros - which complemented extensive program notes - especially helped with the less familiar 20th-century pieces in the concert's second half. The director urged listeners to let themselves "be taken along for the ride" on Paul Hindemith's Trauermusik (1936). Intense, haunting lower strings supported eloquent solo cellist John Dunlop for the reflective essay on mourning, which the composer dashed off in an amazing six hours when the English king suddenly died. The concluding piece, Ernest Bloch's Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1924), put a jazzy spin on the Baroque form. The orchestra maintained a crisp edge throughout the rhythmically challenging work.
BCO's quartet of concerts will culminate June 21 with an evening featuring the winner of the group's Young Artist Solo Competition. A Vermont high school student who has auditioned and won will perform a solo concerto backed by the pros. Hopkins envisions other composition and performance competitions for future seasons. The guaranteed winners? Local audiences.